Project Description:

“Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children “ (Albert Camus, 1948)

Against the backdrop of the “war on terror,” our nation’s youth encounter alarming rates of proximal stressful life experiences including acute traumatic events, stressful life events, chronic adversity, and common daily hassles (Haggerty, Sherrod, Garmezy, & Rutter, 1996).  Increasingly large numbers of children and adolescents exhibit severe emotional and behavioral problems (Achenbach, Dumenci, & Rescorla, 2002; New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, 2003). Theoretically, prevailing etiological models recognize the importance of stress in the development and maintenance of emotional and behavioral difficulties in youth.  Practically, both primary and secondary intervention efforts that seek to reduce risk exposure and enhance the capacity of youth and families to cope with stress are of the utmost importance (Compas, 1998; Sameroff, Seifer, & Bartko, 1997).

Despite the widespread acknowledgment of the role that stressful life experiences play in placing children and adolescents at risk for psychosocial maladjustment, our understanding of factors (including important developmental changes) that influence the relationship between stressors and psychopathology and of explanatory processes that mediate this relationship remains woefully incomplete.  There is also a lack of clarity in both the theoretical conceptualization of the role that stress plays in youth psychopathology and in the measurement of these constructs; generally research in the area has lagged behind similar research with adults (Grant et al., 2003; Grant, Compas, Thurm, McMahon, & Gipson, 2004).  For example, most studies in the area fail to examine whether specific pathways may link risk with maladjustment (McMahon, Grant, Compas, Thurm, & Ey, 2003), and de facto, test hypotheses consistent with a nonspecificity model whereby any stressor is conceptualized as being associated with an increased risk for general distress.  In terms of measurement issues, most studies employ measures that assess external stressors while ascribing to a theoretical conceptualization that includes threat appraisal.  In a recent review, Grant and colleagues (2003) caution that owing to biological, cognitive, and social changes that take place across development, measurement of stressors in children and adolescents should focus exclusively on external, environmental conditions.  Carefully and separately measuring stressors, possible moderators and mediators (including cognitive appraisal), and psychopathology promises to avoid confounding of these variables, ultimately clarifying interpretation of the pathways through which stress exerts its effects on psychopathology. 

Guiding the current study is Grant et al.’s (2003) general conceptual model of the role of stressors in the etiology of child/adolescent psychopathology.  The model’s five central propositions include:  (a) stressors contribute to psychopathology; (b) moderators influence the relationship between stressors and child/adolescent outcome; (c) mediators explain the relationship between stressors and child/adolescent psychopathology; (d) specificity exists in the links between stressors, moderators, mediators, and outcome; and (e) relationships among these variables are transactional in nature (i.e., dynamic, reciprocal).   The broad purpose of the current investigation is to empirically test a full specificity model, including specific moderating and mediating links, of the role of stress in the etiology of child/adolescent psychopathology in order to begin to understand the common and unique pathways through which individual, family, and broader contextual factors influence early adolescent’s adaptation to different family stressors. 

Relatively little attention has been given to understanding the specific qualities (e.g., emotional experience, chronic vs. acute, loss vs. conflict; major vs. minor) that may explain how a particular stressful event is related to child/adolescent outcome.  Ultimately, such work is a necessary step toward the development of a taxonomy of life stressors (Grant et al., 2004).  Given that there is no currently agreed upon classification scheme, the current study sought to replicate work by Sandler and colleagues (1992) that employed theoretically derived categories in their investigation of the specificity of associations between stressors (interpersonal separations and interpersonal conflicts) and symptoms (depression and conduct disorder).  In order to evaluate the possible influences of broader life circumstances and generalizability of effects across different populations three separate groups of participants will be recruited from the larger sample: comparison group (no divorce, no job loss), divorce group (experienced divorce within last year, not remarried), and job loss group (experienced job loss within last year).  These stressors were selected given their relatively high frequency in the general population, similarity in terms of financial strain, and shared, albeit disparate, family organizational changes that typically co-occur.

Whether exposure to a major life event, such as parental divorce, leads to enhanced growth or future psychosocial disturbance is one of the central questions of developmental psychopathology.  Implicit in this question is the idea of adaptation (i.e., managing or regulating one’s emotions, physiological arousal, thoughts, behaviors and/or negotiating the environmental context to decrease stress) or coping.  Research on coping responses, processes, and outcomes in children and adolescents represents a growing field of inquiry that promises to enrich our understanding of the impact of stress on child and adolescent functioning and our ability to prevent and treat psychological problems that occur (see Compas et al., 2001 for an excellent review of progress and issues).  Coping represents an important individual-level process that may mediate or moderate the effects of exposure to stress and child/adolescent adjustment.  The current study seeks to test whether coping serves a mediating or moderating role in the relation between stress and adjustment and whether specific patterns may differ depending on the characteristics of the stressor and/or child age and gender.

In addition to intrapersonal risk/protective factors, also critical to our understanding of the relation between stressors and child/adolescent mental health are interpersonal influences, including both family processes and more distal socioecological factors.  Interpersonal theory (e.g., Hammen & Rudolph, 1996) provides the theoretical framework for a burgeoning literature on the mediating effects of parenting (e.g., Conger et al., 1997; Fauber, Forehand, McCombs Thomas, & Wierson, 1990), parental distress (e.g., Duncan, Brooks-Gunn, & Klebanov, 1994; Zahn-Waxler, Duggal, & Gruber, 2002), and other family processes (Davies & Forman, 2002).  Consonant with Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological model, family stressors may also influence youth psychosocial outcome through spheres external to the family environment.  Given the increased importance of outside influences as children develop, it is somewhat surprising how infrequently both family and external (e.g., negative peer involvement) environments are simultaneously considered in relationship to family stress and youth outcome (Barrera et al., 2002; Luthar, 1999).  This lack of attention is perhaps even more striking among rural vs. inner-city populations.  The current study will include measures of individual-level (e.g., coping, gender, age), family-level (e.g., parenting quality and behavior, emotional family security, parentification) and peer/community-level (e.g., economic hardship; SES, deviant peer involvement, co-rumination, external stressors) processes that may mediate or moderate the effects of family stress on children and adolescent’s psychosocial adjustment and will employ a multimethod-multisource approach to understanding the phenomena.

There are 5 overarching goals of the proposed research:

  1. To evaluate a stressor-outcome specific model of the relations between two different types of stressors (separation events, conflict events) and particular child/adolescent psychological outcomes (internalizing problems, externalizing difficulties) within a rural sample of Oregon youth.  It is expected that separation events will be more strongly related to internalizing events, while conflict events will be more strongly related to externalizing problems.
  2. To test the generalizability of the model in a sub-sample of youth experiencing unique family stressors (either divorce or parental job loss) in order to examine whether the specific pathways differ as a function of the specific characteristics of the stressor.
  3. To investigate potential moderators and evaluate whether the specific nature of child/adolescent difficulties differs as a function of individual (age, gender), family (parentification, parenting styles and behaviors), and peer/community influences (deviant peer affliliation, SES).  Both common and unique pathways will be explored.
  4. To investigate possible mediators and evaluate whether specific mechanisms, including coping, parenting, maternal psychopathology, and family security, explain different trajectories of youth adjustment to stressors.
  5. To provide a snapshot of the levels of stress, behavior problems, and emotional difficulties affecting youth in our community.  In addition to presenting the results at professional conferences and publications, it is expected that key school personnel (e.g., teachers, counselors, director of student services), county staff (e.g., prevention specialist), and community child advocates will be interested in understanding key findings and discussing possible implications for specific prevention and intervention efforts within the community.

List of Measures