Demography, Psychosocial Factors, and Emotional Problems of Korean American Adolescents

By Cho, Sangmi; Bae, Sung-Woo | Adolescence, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview
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Demography, Psychosocial Factors, and Emotional Problems of Korean American Adolescents


Cho, Sangmi, Bae, Sung-Woo, Adolescence


According to U.S. Bureau of Census data (2001), approximately 1.1 million Korean Americans reside in the U.S. Of this number, about one-third are children and adolescents. Many of the adolescents have experienced emotional problems due to acculturative stress. They are sometimes overwhelmed in trying to learn the new language, social norms, and living styles. They often experience problems of alienation, isolation, and psychological distress.

Despite the increasing number of Korean American adolescents in the U.S. and their emotional problems, research on this group has been limited. As a result, Korean American community leaders and professionals are in need of empirical data on the lives of these adolescents in order to develop interventions and support programs.

In order to address this important gap in the literature, this study examined the relationship between several demographic and psychosocial factors and associated emotional problems among Korean American adolescents.

BACKGROUND

Emotional Problems of Asian American Adolescents

Research on Asian American adolescents' emotional problems tends to focus on depressive symptoms and moods. A recent cross-sectional study by Greenberger and Chen (1996) compared the levels of self-reported depressive symptoms between Asian American and European American adolescents. Results revealed no difference among adolescents (7th and 8th graders), but Asian American late adolescents (college undergraduates) were significantly more depressed than Caucasian American subjects. Similarly, Lorenzo et al. (1995) found that Asian American ninth-graders reported higher levels of isolation, depressive, and anxiety symptoms compared to Caucasian ninth-graders. Studies with a specific Asian ethnic group (Chiu et al., 1992; Abe & Zane, 1990) also reported that Chinese American youth in the U.S. exhibited more psychological distress than did native Chinese or European American adolescents.

While there are studies that report similar levels of depressive symptoms between Asian and non-Asian high school students (Chen & Stevenson, 1995; Fletcher & Steinberg, 1994), overall findings appear to indicate that Asian American adolescents tend to have higher levels of emotional difficulties than most other adolescents. After reviewing the available literature, Uba (1994) concluded that Asian Americans of all ages have a rate of psychopathology equal to or higher than that of European Americans. In spite of these numbers, it has been documented that Asian American adolescents tend to underutilize mental health services when compared to other ethnic groups (Brier & Takeuchi, 1992).

Although the specific mechanisms that account for Asian American adolescents' higher level of emotional difficulties require further research, it has been suggested that cultural differences may be an important factor. Cross-cultural researchers suggest that European American adolescents are more likely to exhibit externalizing behaviors such as physical aggression, defiance, and antisocial acts whereas Asian American adolescents are more vulnerable to internalized behaviors such as depression and anxiety (Weine, Phillips, & Achenbach, 1995; Lambert, Weisz, & Knight, 1989). These behavioral differences may stem from differences in cultural values. Cultures that are more individualistic are thought to be more conducive to overt expression of deviance while adolescents in collectivistic cultures are more prone to internalizing behavior because they are encouraged to suppress socially disapproved behaviors (Greenberger et al., 2000).

Immigration and acculturative stresses appear to be other important factors that contribute to Asian American adolecents' higher levels of psychological distress. Although Caucasian adolescents may be immigrants from other countries, they may be less likely to face difficulties with language problems, different cultural expectations, and be labeled as cultural novelties than are Asian adolescent immigrants.

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