In this study, we explored the degree to which the personality characteristics of teenagers protect them from an accumulation of risk factors stemming from the family, peer, school, and neighborhood context.
We considered several protective factors: self-esteem, school achievement (i.e., good grades), and problem-solving skills, or the ability to approach social dilemmas with planning. The focus on these characteristics allowed us to address whether individual assets by themselves can sufficiently counteract the harmful effects of a high-risk environment.
We tested this question using data from 5,070 seventh through eleventh graders who participated in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. This study was designed to provide information about social factors that influence adolescent health and well-being.
In our study, we focused on 15 risk factors in an adolescents' social world, including family poverty, marital conflict, weak bonds between parents and teens, peer rejection, weak attachment to school, prejudice by students at school, and poor neighborhood conditions.
We discovered that teenagers who experienced several of these risk factors simultaneously had higher levels of depression and conduct problems than teens who experienced fewer risk factors. An encouraging finding is that the risk for emotional and behavioral problems was lower for teens who possessed one or more protective assets. For instance, teenagers who experienced a high number of risk factors were less likely to be depressed and engage in delinquent activity if they had high self-esteem.
However, we also discovered that the protective effects of self-esteem, school achievement, and problem-solving skills were not sufficient on their own to overcome the effects of risk factors across social contexts. Among teenagers with multiple protective factors, those who experienced risk factors in two or more social settings had higher levels of depressed mood and more conduct problems than teenagers with risk factors in fewer social contexts.
Overall, then, we found that adolescents are unlikely to thrive when they face difficult experiences across multiple settings of their lives, even if they possess the personal resources, or resilience, to deal with a challenging environment.
This finding suggests that interventions with at-risk youth that focus solely on developing personal characteristics to build resilience is misguided because it places the burden of responsibility for coping with social challenges on the adolescent. Instead, ensuring adolescent wellness requires efforts that target the assets youth bring to their environment and the availability of resources in the families and communities in which youth reside.
Summarized from Child Development, Vol. 75, Issue 6, Cumulative Environmental Risk and Youth Maladjustment: The Role of Youth Attributes by J.M. Gerard (Bowling Green State University) and C. Buehler. Copyright 2004 The Society for Research in Child Development, Inc. All rights reserved.