Sources of Support and Psychological Distress among Academically Successful Inner-City Youth

Article excerpt

Adolescence is a time of normative developmental stress, but for students living in urban environments and attending inner-city public schools, the developmental challenges of adolescence can be complicated by multiple stressors (Dryfoos, 1990). In comparison with more affluent suburban high schools, inner-city high schools are characterized by higher rates of behavior problems and academic failure (Allen & Mitchell, 1998). Students attending urban schools often experience a number of environmental risks, including lower parental education, single parenthood, minority group status, and negative, stressful life events, that often accompany low levels of economic resources, and contribute cumulatively to psychiatric disorders, behavioral problems, academic failure, and low social and emotional competence (Gallay & Flanagan, 2000; Sameroff & Seifer, 1995). Much attention has been paid to the problems of urban youth, with much less attention focused on academically successful youth (Garmezy & Rutter, 1983; Gibbs, 1998).

The literature on "resilience" has been helpful in directing attention toward youth who succeed despite low levels of economic resources and high levels of life stress, and in identifying factors that can serve "protective" functions by fostering competence (Masten & Coatsworth, 1998). Although resilience has been helpful in focusing attention on the strengths that are prevalent within so-called "at-risk" groups, the construct has been criticized for contributing to an overly simplistic understanding of psychological adaptation (Luthar, 1991; Luthar, Cicchetti, & Becker, 2000) and a disregard for overwhelming hardships experienced by some of the nonresilient youth (Garbarino, 1999). The present research explored sources and patterns of resilience among academically successful inner-city high school students. Study 1 examined the relationship between parental attachment, depressive symptoms, and academic achievement among a multiethnic sample of ninth-, tenth-, and twelfth-grade students. Study 2 was designed to provide a more in-depth examination of sources of support, life stress, and patterns of resilience for the 16 high school seniors from Study 1.


One of the most widely reported predictors of resilience is the presence of a positive relationship with a caring adult (Masten & Coatsworth, 1998), and the presence of a close relationship with a caring parental figure has been related to positive outcomes among children facing ordinary and extraordinary life stress (Rutter, 1987). The attachment paradigm has been heuristic in understanding the protective role of adult caretakers. According to Bowlby (1973), caregivers who consistently recognize and sensitively respond to their children's needs for comfort, security, and independent exploration contribute to a sense of self as valued and competent. Furthermore, the availability of the attachment figure as a source of comfort and security is theorized to reduce anxiety and contribute to competence in interacting with the world (Sroufe & Fleeson, 1986). Insecure attachment can be seen as a risk factor for maladaptive outcomes, with the negative internal working model of the self that develops in the context of insecure attachment theorized to contribute to the development of depressive cognitions and depressive symptoms (Cummings & Cicchetti, 1990), as well as anxiety and conduct disorders (Allen, Moore, & Kuperminc, 1997).

Although the protective value of caretaker attachments is documented among diverse samples of young children (Van Ijzendoorn & Sagi, 1999), research has not explored the relationship between attachment to parents or extended family members among urban adolescents. Since the importance of specific protective factors is known to vary across developmental levels and contexts (Masten & Coatsworth, 1998), findings pertaining to young children may not pertain to older children. …


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