Ethnic Identity as a Predictor of Problem Behaviors among Korean American Adolescents

Article excerpt

Youth violence, delinquency, and emotional problems such as depression and anxiety have increased during the past two decades (Snyder & Sickmund, 1999). The increase in both scope and intensity of adolescent problems has led to increased attention from researchers in a variety of disciplines. However, the majority of studies have focused on family disruption, family structure (i.e., two-parent vs. single-parent home), parent-child relationship stress, parental supervision, peer pressure, and social/economic barriers as contributing factors (Loeber & Stouthamer-Loeber, 1998; Patterson & Dishion, 1985; Steinberg, 1995). Although these intrafamilial and interpersonal factors are clearly important, this approach overlooks the importance of ethnic identity in minority adolescents' psychological and behavioral adjustment (Phinney, 1990).

The struggle to achieve identity is a universally expected part of adolescence, regardless of cultural and ethnic background (Erikson, 1968). However, for young members of ethnic minorities, identification with their own culture is an additional and important aspect of identity development (Phinney & Alipuria, 1990). Ethnic identity development is particularly critical for minority adolescents since they have, in addition to their ordinary developmental issues, the added burden of exploring the values of both their host society and their original cultures in the process of becoming a member of their own ethnic group as well as the mainstream society. According to Phinney and colleagues (1992), maintaining a positive identification with both one's own and the mainstream culture is an indicator of higher levels of positive psychological outcomes in adolescents. Consistently, other studies also have demonstrated that ethnic identity is crucial to adolescents' self-esteem and psychological well-being as measured in self-worth, sense of mastery, purpose in life, and social competence (Atkinson et al., 1983, Martinez & Dukes, 1997; Phinney, 1990; Rotheram-Borus, 1989; Sheu, 1986). These findings suggest that higher levels of ethnic identity are likely to have a positive impact on the overall psychological outcome, while feelings of role confusion and alienation resulting from ethnic identity conflicts can lead to psychological as well as behavioral problems for ethnic minority adolescents.

The amount of research on minority adolescents over the past two decades has increased steadily. There also has been increasing research into the relationship between minority adolescents' acculturation/ethnic identity and their general psychological well-being (Phinney et al., 1997). However, most studies have focused on African American and Hispanic adolescent populations despite the rapid growth of the Asian American population. The present study therefore sought to (1) examine overall differences in problem behaviors by key demographic variables among Korean American adolescents with immigrant backgrounds, and (2) assess three dimensions of ethnic identity (level of ethnic identity, attitudes toward other groups, and perceived discrimination) as predictors of adolescent problem behaviors. These behaviors were categorized into two types: internalizing (psychological distress) and externalizing (conduct disorder). Specifically, internalizing problems refer to anxiety, depression, and somatic complaints, while the constellation of externalizing problems includes aggressive and delinquent behaviors. It is hypothesized that Korean American adolescents who score higher on levels of ethnic identity and attitudes toward other groups and score lower on perceived discrimination will display fewer problem behaviors than those who score lower on the two former scales and higher on the latter.

BACKGROUND

Asian Americans represent one of the fastest growing ethnic minority groups in the U.S. (U.S. Census Bureau, 2002). In 1970 there were fewer than 1.5 million Asians in the United States, accounting for only 0. …