Family Stressor Events, Family Coping, and Adolescent Adaptation in Farm and Ranch Families

By Plunkett, Scott W.; Henry, Carolyn S. et al. | Adolescence, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview
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Family Stressor Events, Family Coping, and Adolescent Adaptation in Farm and Ranch Families

Plunkett, Scott W., Henry, Carolyn S., Knaub, Patricia K., Adolescence

Beginning in the late 1970s and continuing through the 1980s, farm and ranch families in the United States faced a period of economic distress commonly referred to as the "farm crisis" (Keating, 1987). Despite extensive economic adversity in major agricultural areas, the adaptation of families varied widely. The emphasis of much of the research on these families has been on the vulnerability of adults to individual and family stress. Yet, as Jurich and Russell (1987) observed, children and adolescents were also vulnerable.

Understanding rural communities today requires knowledge of the historical context (Little, Proulx, Marlowe, & Knaub, 1987). American farm families have a long history of economic hardships (Little et al., 1987), and future periods of economic instability are possible due to adverse weather or changes in market conditions (McCubbin, Thompson, Thompson, & Elver, 1994). Further exploration of data gathered during the farm crisis can thus provide valuable insights for family life professionals. Using information collected in the mid-1980s, the present study utilized family stress theory to explore adaptation of adolescents in farm and ranch families. Specifically, it examined the relationship of selected demographic variables, family stressor events, and family coping strategies to three indicators of adolescent adaptation (individual stress, family stress, and family life satisfaction).


Family Stress Theory

According to family stress theory, there are several indicators of family adaptation to stressor events. One is the adaptation of individual family members, including adolescents (McCubbin & Patterson, 1983). Olson et al. (1983) and McCubbin et al. (1988) have noted that such factors as the perceived levels of individual and family stress serve as markers of adaptation. Thus, adaptation encompasses a variety of variables, including adolescents' perceptions of their own level of stress and their perceptions of stress in the overall family unit. Research has revealed relationships between stress in rural families and several indicators of adaptation, such as family violence, substance abuse, and suicide (Davidson, 1990; Jurich & Russell, 1987; Lasley, 1994).

Another indicator of adaptation is the degree of family life satisfaction (Henry, 1994; McCubbin, Thompson, Pirner, & McCubbin, 1988). Research has found that adolescent satisfaction with family life is related to increased emotional disclosure with parents (Papini, Farmer, Clark, Micka, & Barnett, 1990), greater compliance with parental expectations (Schumm, Bugaighis, Jurich, & Bollman, 1986), increased quality of life (Schumm, Bugaighis, Bollman, & Jurich, 1986), and overall life satisfaction (Olson et al, 1983). Farm and ranch families are often characterized by interaction patterns that encompass both family dynamics and business functions (Lasley, 1994), and additional information is needed on the satisfaction of adolescents within these families.

Based on family stress theory, variations in adolescent adaptation are explained by the nature of family stressor events, existing resources, and family definitions (McCubbin & Patterson, 1983). Family coping strategies represent a combination of the meaning families attribute to events and how they utilize resources as they attempt to manage stressor events (McCubbin, Larsen, & Olson, 1982).

Family Stressor Events

McCubbin and McCubbin (1989) observed that family stress rarely occurs in a vacuum. Rather, families under stress often encounter a pileup of stressors, or an accumulation of life events or transitions that place demands upon the family system. Change occurring for any family member may have implications for other members and the overall family system. Peeks (1989), for example, noted that transitions in farm families may result in the inability of family members to reorganize successfully, increased feelings of depression, loss of self-esteem, increased behavior problems, and heightened levels of stress.

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