Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Cumulative Environmental Risk and Youth Problem Behavior

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Cumulative Environmental Risk and Youth Problem Behavior

Article excerpt

Using data from Wave 1 (n = 5,070) and Wave 2 (n = 4,404) of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, we examined the relationship between cumulative risk exposure and youth problem behavior. Cross-sectional analyses revealed a positive, linear association between cumulative risk and problem behaviors. The association between cumulative risk and externalizing problems was stronger for White youth than for Black youth. The association between cumulative risk and internalizing problems was stronger for girls than for boys, and stronger for White youth than for Black and Hispanic youth. Cumulative risk predicted change over time in internalizing problems. Findings support the theoretical notion that adolescents experience diminished psychological comfort when risk factors are present across several social domains.

Key Words: adolescence, cumulative risk, ecological theory, externalizing problems, internalizing problems.

Adolescence is a period marked by significant biological change and psychosocial development. Rapid growth and increased autonomy leave adolescents vulnerable to harmful environmental influences, heightening the risk of maladaptive developmental outcomes (Haugaard, 2001). Two broad indicators of maladjustment are externalizing and internalizing behaviors. These forms of maladjustment constitute primary reasons for referring youth to mental health services (Kazdin, 1995; Reynolds, 1992). Moreover, evidence of problem behaviors during adolescence might foreshadow impaired adult functioning, including poor mental health, substance abuse, and problematic social relationships (Capaldi & Stoolmiller, 1999; Maughan & Rutter, 1998). Broad-based studies of risk indicate that simultaneous exposure to multiple risk factors is particularly harmful to youths' long-term psychological well-being (e.g., Deater-Deckard, Dodge, Bates, & Pettit, 1998; Sameroff, Bartko, Baldwin, Baldwin, & Siefer, 1998). These studies suggest that complex risk models are necessary to account for the interplay among risk factors in predicting adolescent mental health outcomes.

The purpose of this study is to test the efficacy of a cumulative risk model for predicting youth problem behaviors in a large sample of adolescents. We extend previous literature in three ways. First, unlike most studies of risk, we use theory to guide our selection of risk factors and to provide a framework for understanding why adolescent psychosocial development is compromised under high-risk conditions. Second, we employ longitudinal data from a nationally representative sample of adolescents, which not only permits greater generalizability of findings than previous studies but also an assessment of whether cumulative risk accounts for change in problem behaviors over time. Third, our analytic models are designed to add greater specificity to the small body of literature on cumulative risk by (a) examining the functional form of the association between cumulative risk and youth problem behaviors (i.e., linear versus nonlinear); (b) conducting moderating tests for youth gender, age level, and ethnicity; and (c) testing alternative models to the cumulative risk approach.


Multiple Risk

For purposes of this study, risk is defined as a condition within the youth's socialization context that potentially increases the likelihood of personally or socially unfavorable developmental outcomes (Jessor, 1998). Bronfenbrenner's (1989) ecological theory is a useful perspective for organizing risk factors into a coherent framework because it highlights the potential of risk in various socialization contexts of the adolescent's life. Consideration is given to risk factors from four social domains: family, peer, school, and neighborhood. Generally speaking, researchers have limited their investigations to risk stemming from the child and familial environment (e.g., Forehand, Biggar, & Kotchick, 1998; Siefer, Sameroff, Baldwin, & Baldwin, 1992). …

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