Mediators of Adolescents' Stress in a College Preparatory Environment

Article excerpt

Adolescence has often been called a time of "storm and stress," and many factors contribute to this view, including developmental and environmental pressures. Compas, Phares, & Ledoux (1989) identify five sources of individual differences in vulnerability to stress among children and adolescents: (a) developmental factors; (b) gender-related factors; (c) the proximal nature of daily as opposed to major stressful events; (d) stress and symptoms in the lives of significant others; and (e) individual differences in self-perceptions of competence and the importance of different domains of functioning. School is a significant arena for the experience of stress in adolescence, and although still relatively underresearched, the past decade has seen an increase in interest in school-related stress by both scholars and clinicians (D'Aurora & Fimian, 1988). With the growing recognition of the role of stress in both physical and mental illness, such research takes on new urgency.

Historically, most stress research with adolescents has focused on assessing the effects of major life events, such as death of a close family member or parents' divorce. More recently, due to the recognition that a majority of psychiatric problems in children and youth are attributable to smaller scale everyday problems rather than major crises (Paykel, 1978), the influence of ongoing stresses and strains has received increased attention. Grannis (1992) sees a need for stress research that would include persistent conditions and daily stresses and disappointments. Compas et al. (1989) found evidence that major and daily stressors play complementary roles in relation to symptoms, with daily stressors mediating the association between major events and symptoms. Clearly, continued research is needed in the area of daily stressors.


This sphere of study has expanded to include measurement of variables hypothesized to moderate or buffer the negative effects of stressors. Stress buffering refers to a variable's ability to protect an individual from the deleterious effects of negative life events (Cohen & Willis, 1985). Such variables can function in at least two ways (Towbes, Cohen, & Glyshaw, 1989). First, they can influence cognitive appraisals of either the negative events themselves, or the coping responses elicited. Second, they can influence the reliance on specific coping strategies. Among the most thoroughly investigated stress-buffering variables are locus of control and social support.

Locus of Control

The construct of locus of control grew out of social learning theory, and denotes the degree to which an individual perceives that reinforcement is contingent upon his or her own behavior or attributes versus external forces (Rotter, 1966). Although the degree of perceived control originates from the individual's empirical observations, it becomes a set of generalized expectancies which involve the cognitive process of interpretation. Therefore, individuals vary in their tendency to attribute personal control in a given situation. Many studies have investigated the correlates of locus of control, and internal locus of control has been shown to be associated with greater self-esteem (Koenig, Clements, & Alloy, 1992), popularity (Nowicki & Roundtree, 1971), achievement motivation (Burger, 1992) and academic success (Gordon, 1977; Cole & Sapp, 1988). It has been shown to buffer the effects of stressful life events (Siddique & D'Arcy, 1984; Cohen & Edwards, 1989). Indeed, it is the personality variable that has received the most consistent experimental support as a stress moderator (Towbes et al., 1989).

Social Support

The role of social support as a moderator of stress has also received considerable attention. In a review of the early research in this area, Cobb (1976) cited evidence that social support can protect persons in crisis from a wide variety of pathological states ranging from low birth weight to depression and alcoholism. …


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