The Relationship of Individual and Family Factors to the Psychological Well-Being of Junior High School Students Living in Urban Poverty

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ABSTRACT

This study examined the contribution of individual and family factors to psychological adjustment in a sample of junior high school students living in urban poverty. Identity development and perceived parental treatment were hypothesized to serve as mediating, or protective, factors between economic hardship and levels of self-esteem, depression, and loneliness. Consistent with the hypotheses, identity development did serve as a mediator between poverty and psychological adjustment. While perceived parental treatment was not related to economic hardship, it was clearly associated with well-being in this sample. Findings are discussed in terms of the differing contributions of family and individual development, as well as the importance of mediators in assessing the effects of poverty on young adolescents.

Life in urban cities has been compared to a war zone. Garbarino, Kostelny, and Dubrow (1991) cite increasing levels of gang violence, lack of basic health care, inadequate food, inferior schooling, and social isolation as factors that make the context of urban poverty stressful. One study found that, by the time urban children reached high school, 40% had witnessed a shooting, 33% had seen a stabbing, and 25% had witnessed a murder (Kotulak, 1990).

Poverty has also been associated with school dropout rates (Sum & Fogg, 1991), as well as elevated levels of loneliness and depression in rural adolescents (Lempers, Clark-Lempers, & Simons, 1989). Economically disadvantaged adolescents report greater numbers of negative life events (Gad, Treadwell, & Johnson, 1980), and over 75% of all poor children and adolescents have below average basic skills in reading and math, with 50% in the lowest quintile (Sum & Fogg, 1991).

Clearly urban poverty places children and adolescents at risk for negative outcomes. Yet, over 65% of these adolescents are able to make the transition to young adulthood successfully and improve their economic circumstances (Sum & Fogg, 1991). It is important to discover what resources adolescents use to make this transition, and to determine the role of both individual and family factors in buffering against stress.

Several factors serve to cushion individuals against negative outcomes, perhaps the most important being the perceived support and consistent discipline of a nurturing family (Larzelere & Patterson, 1990; Lempers, Clark-Lempers, & Simons, 1989). Individual factors, such as completion of developmental tasks, may also alleviate the negative effects of urban poverty. For example, identity development, the formation of a consistent sense of self, may serve as an important protective factor for adolescents. Identity development has been shown to relate to several important outcomes for white, middle-class populations, such as adolescent autonomy (Dellas & Jernigan, 1991) and family functioning (Sabatelli & Mazor, 1985).

Despite the importance of identity, its development in urban adolescents has not been studied extensively. In fact, individual factors as a whole, regardless of their demonstrated importance in predicting resilience to stress (Sroufe & Rutter, 1984), have been largely ignored, with research instead focusing on structural family variables. These variables, such as number of parents or birth order, ignore the process factors (e.g., perceptions of positive parental treatment) that are often found to be more predictive of adjustment (Bronfenbrenner, 1986).

Identity Development

Erikson (1963) considers identity formation to be the cornerstone of adolescent psychosocial development. Josselson (1987) offers this definition, "Identity, then is a dynamic fitting together of parts of the personality with the realities of the social world so that a person has a sense both of internal coherence and meaningful relatedness to the real world" (pp. 12-13). An alternative to identity achievement is identity diffusion, which occurs when adolescents are not able to commit to definite life choices. …