URC

Antecedents of Adolescents’ Coping Strategies in Immigrant Families in Los Angeles

Ian B. Nahmias
Scott W. Plunkett*

California State University, Northridge


Abstract

Immigrant adolescents use coping strategies to deal with acculturative and personal stress. Yet, little is known about where these coping strategies emerge. The purpose of this study was to identify whether perceived parental behaviors and neighborhood qualities related to the coping strategies used by adolescents from immigrant families. Self-report data were collected from 729 adolescents from immigrant families in one Los Angeles school. Multiple regressions indicated (a) girls reported higher family support and social support in coping than boys; (b) parental warmth was significantly and positively related to family support and social support, while negatively related to ventilating feelings and substance use coping; (c) parental harshness was positively related to social support, ventilating feelings, and substance use coping; and (d) neighborhood stressors were related to higher ventilating feelings and substance use coping.

A common experience of immigration is the excessive levels of stress encountered by most individuals and families before, during, and after their relocation (Organista, & Kurasaki, 2003; Siantz, 1997; Water, 1997). Individual responses to stress can manifest in physiological, emotional, and behavioral reactions (Thompson & Calkin, 1996). Consequently, adolescents may cope with stressors in various ways. Many factors play a role in why coping in immigrant families holds so much importance. Acculturation and adaptation are two key roles in a majority of immigrant families (Sabatier & Berry, 2008). Beliefs, values, and strategies that countless immigrant families and individuals respect in their homelands vary significantly from that of U.S. commonalities. One out of five individuals is from an immigrant family (Elmelech, McCaskie, Lennon, & Lu, 2002; Morse, 2005), and how these youth cope determines their future well-being and success. Given the importance of coping, it is crucial to identify the antecedents of coping. Hence, the purpose of this study is to identify whether perceived parental behaviors and neighborhood qualities relate to the coping strategies used by adolescents from immigrant families.

Coping can be adaptive or maladaptive (Hess & Richard, 1999). Two types of adaptive coping include family support and social support. Family support is defined as family members who fulfill roles adequately and are there for one another no matter the circumstance (Valentiner, Holahan, & Moos 1994). Thus, family support coping refers to turning to family members during times of stress (Patterson & McCubbin, 1987). Social support is defined as a range of interpersonal relationships that have an impact on the individual’s functioning given to us by our family, friends, and surroundings, including social integration and coping assistance (Barker, 2000).

The defining feature of maladaptive coping is that it generally results in more problems for that individual. Ventilating feelings refers to cursing, yelling, and other forms of verbal aggression, which attempt to relieve tension (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984; Patterson & McCubbin, 1987). Substance use coping refers to an individual turning to alcohol or drugs in hopes of alleviating internal or external obstacles he or she may face (Colomba, Santiago, & Rosello, 1999). Each of these ways of dealing with stress can ultimately result in more problems for the adolescent.

The contexts in which adolescents live and interact can influence the type of coping strategies they use when dealing with stress. A primary context is the family. Thus, parenting and families are crucial in determining how an adolescent adapts and deals with stress. Parental support is defined as parental figures providing a safe environment characterized by verbal (e.g., praise, encouragement) and physical (hugging) affirmations (Peterson, 2005). Families are especially vital for youth of immigrant families because these are the years impressionability is at its highest. If parental warmth is high, then the adolescent may feel comfortable turning to family members when dealing with problems or stressors. Conversely, if parental support is weak in a given household, the adolescent may turn to other forms of social support or maladaptive ways to manage stress and frustrations.

Parental harshness involves parental intrusiveness, guilt induction, and love withdrawal that are non-responsive to the emotional and psychological needs of children and stifle dependent expression and autonomy (Barber 1996, 2002). If the parent verbally abuses the adolescent (e.g., being put down or made to feel insufficient), then the adolescent may be less likely to confide in parents when dealing with stress or problems. In actuality, they may be more likely to seek other routes to manage stress that no longer involve the parent or family. Adolescents may model characteristics of harsh parenting (e.g., blaming and criticizing others) when they are attempting to overcome their own life stressors.

The neighborhood is another key context where development occurs that can impact the coping strategies adolescents implement. Because immigrants tend to live in lower socioeconomic status (SES) neighborhoods, their coping methods may be related (Gonzales, Tein, Sandler, & Friedman, 2001). When immigrant families first arrive in the U.S., they may be more inclined to settle in a poverty-stricken area because they have not yet become established in a community. Residing in a lower income neighborhood comes with a price; a family is more likely to be exposed to underage alcohol consumption as well as illegal drug activity and dispersion (Colomba, Santiago, & Rossello, 1999; Fanshawe & Burnette, 1991; Rasmussen, Aber, & Bhana, 2004; Shulman, Seiffge-Krenke, & Samet, 1987). We also must take into account that immigrant families may be unaware of how unsafe a particular neighborhood truly is; therefore neglecting to investigate when a price for a home seems quite feasible. An adolescent in lower SES neighborhoods, in comparison to living in a higher-income area, may turn to the wrong individuals for ventilating feelings (Caples & Barrera, 2006; Shulman, Seiffge-Krenke, & Samet, 1987). Additionally, adolescents in lower SES neighborhoods may be less likely to discover positive social support coping strategies due to the lack of available resources.

Besides family and neighborhood context, the gender of the adolescent may relate to the method of coping strategy used when dealing with life’s tensions and stressors. Previous research suggests that girls tend to inquire about social support from family or friends more repeatedly than boys, while boys are more inclined to either disregard stressors or act out and use alcohol or drugs (Copeland & Hess, 1995; Frydenberg & Lewis, 1991; Kobus & Reyes, 2000; Shulman, 1993).

Based on the review of literature, the following hypotheses were developed. Perceived support by parents will be significantly and positively related to adaptive coping strategies (i.e., family support, social support) and significantly and negatively related to maladaptive coping strategies (i.e., substance use, ventilating feelings). Parental harshness and neighborhood stressors will be significantly and negatively related to adaptive coping strategies (i.e., family support, social support) and significantly and positively related to maladaptive coping strategies (i.e., substance use, ventilating feelings).

Methodology

Procedure

The sample for this study was composed of 729 adolescents from immigrant families residing in a large metropolitan area in southern California. All adolescents in the sample spoke English. Hence, verbal instructions were presented in English, and all questionnaires were completed in English. Adolescents were selected for inclusion in the study if they indicated that either their father or mother was born out of the United States. Self-report survey data were collected from adolescents in their classrooms at one ethnically diverse high school. Signed youth assent and parental consent forms were mandatory to participate. Because the majority of students were Latino, parental consent forms were available in English and Spanish. Members of the research team dispersed surveys in classrooms. The researchers (most of whom spoke multiple languages) were in attendance during the administration of the survey to answer questions and provide translation if necessary.

Sample Characteristics

The age range of the participants was 13 to 19 years old (M = 14.3). In regard to gender, 57.8 percent were female while 42.2 percent were male. Most (i.e., 68 percent) of the participants came from two-parent intact families, 15.4 percent came from a single-mother family, 9.6 percent came from a stepfather family, and the remaining 7 percent came from other family forms. As far as generation status, 67.6 percent of the adolescents were 2nd generation and 32.4 percent were 1st generation. The mothers originated from sixty countries, including the following: 39.2 percent Mexico, 15.1 percent El Salvador, 8.0 percent Guatemala, 5.9 percent Korea, 4.9 percent Philippines, 4.7 percent United States of America, 2.2 percent Armenia, and less than 2 percent from the remaining 53 countries. For the birth country of the father, 41 percent were from Mexico, 15.1 percent from El Salvador, 6.9 percent from Guatemala, 5.8 percent from Korea, 4.9 percent from the Philippines, 4.1 percent from the United States of America, 2.1 percent from Armenia, and less than 2 percent each from 53 other countries.

Measurements

The variables in the study were assessed using standard demographic questions, previously established measures, or modifications of previously established measures. See Table 1 for the means, standard deviations, and reliabilities for each variable.

Table 1.  Means, Standard Deviations, Ranges, and Reliabilities for Each Variable

         

 

Mean

SD

Range

Alpha

Family Support Coping

3.23

.86

1-5

.74

Social Support Coping

3.71

.68

1-5

.71

Ventilating Feelings Coping

2.55

.78

1-5

.74

Substance Use Coping

1.36

.76

1-5

.84

Gender (girls = 0, boys = 1)

.42

.49

0-1

 

Parental Support

3.22

.59

1-4

.85

Parental Harshness

2.13

.47

1-4

.91

Neighborhood stressors

2.12

.55

1-4

.85

Coping strategies were assessed via items from the Likert-type, Adolescent Coping Orientation for Problem Experiences (Patterson & McCubbin, 1987). Family support (6 items) included interacting and talking to family members to manage stress. Social support was measured using six items from the social support subscale and investing in close friends subscale. Ventilating feelings (6 items) measured the participants’ expressions of frustrations through yelling, complaining, blaming others, and saying cynical things. Substance use was measured with three items that measured use of drugs, alcohol, and smoking in response to stress. Sample items follow: “Talk to your father about what bothers you” (family support), “Talk to a friend about how you feel” (social support),  “Get angry and yell at people” (ventilating feelings), and “Use drugs (not prescribed by a doctor)” (substance use). Response choices follow: 1 = Never, 2 = Hardly ever, 3 = Sometimes, 4 = Often, and 5 = Most of the time. The responses on each subscale were averaged. Cronbach alphas using the present data included family support (.74), social support (.71), ventilating feelings (.74), and substance use (.84).

Neighborhood stressors were determined by ten items rating adolescent reports of neighborhood stressors, such as crime, poverty, substance use, and unemployment (Bámaca, Umaña-Taylor, Shin, & Alfaro, 2005). Sample items follow: (a) “In my neighborhood, many people use drugs or have a drinking problem” and (b) “I have seen many violent acts.” Response choices were 1 = Strongly disagree, 2 = Disagree, 3 = Agree, and 4 = Strongly agree. The responses were averaged. Using the current data, the Cronbach’s alpha for this scale was .85.

Parental warmth (8 items) and harsh parenting (26 items) were measured using items from the Parent Behavior Measure (Bush, Supple & Lash, 2004). Participants were asked to respond about mothers and fathers separately. Supportive parenting assessed adolescents’ perceptions of warmth, love, and nurturance by parents. Harsh parenting assessed perceptions of parental behaviors that were characterized by harsh control, guilt, and love withdrawal. Sample items follow: “My mother says she loves me” and “My father does not give me any peace until I do what he says.” Response choices were 1 = Strongly disagree, 2 = Disagree, 3 = Agree, and 4 = Strongly agree. The responses for each subscale were averaged. Using the current data, the Cronbach’s alpha for parental warmth was .85 and parental harshness was .91.

Results

Bivariate Correlations

Bivariate correlations examined the strength and direction of the relationship between the independent variables (i.e., parental support, parental harshness, neighborhood stressors) and the four coping strategies (see Table 2). Gender was significantly and negatively related to social support coping (indicating that girls report significantly more social support coping than boys), but gender was not significantly related to the other coping strategies. Perceived warmth by parents was significantly and positively related to family support and social support, but significantly and negatively related to ventilating feelings and substance use coping. Both parental harshness and neighborhood stressors were significantly and negatively related to family support coping, positively and significantly related to ventilating feelings and substance use coping, but not significantly related to social support coping.

Table 2. Bivariate Correlations

         

 

Family

Support Coping

Social

Support Coping

Ventilating

Feelings Coping

Substance

Use Coping

Gender (girls = 0, boys = 1)

-.03

-.21**

-.05

.04

Parental Support

.53**

.18**

-.21**

-.18**

Parental Harshness

-.14**

.05

.25**

.14**

Neighborhood stressors

-.17**

-.03

.17**

.18**

*p < .05. **p < .01

Multiple Regressions

The multiple regressions indicated that the predictor variables accounted for significant amounts of variance in each of the four coping strategies (see Table 3): 29 percent of family support, 9 percent of social support, 9 percent of ventilating feelings, and 6 percent of substance use coping. Next, the beta coefficients were examined in each multiple regression equation. Gender was significantly related to family support and social support, indicating girls reported higher adaptive coping than boys. Gender was not related in the regression equations to either of the maladaptive coping strategies. The beta coefficient for parental warmth was significant in all four models (i.e., positively related to family support and social support, while negatively related to ventilating feelings and substance use coping). Parental harshness was positively and significantly related in three of the four models: social support, ventilating feelings, and substance use coping. And finally, the beta coefficients for neighborhood stressors were related in two of the models, indicating higher ventilating feelings and substance use coping when adolescents resided in higher stress neighborhoods.

Table 3. Multiple Regression Analyses

 

 

Family

Support Coping

Social

Support Coping

Ventilating

Feelings Coping

Substance

Use Coping

Gender (girls = 0, boys = 1)

-.08*

-.23**

-.04

.06

Parental Support

.53**

.22**

-.13**

-.13**

Parental Harshness

.00

.10**

.19**

.08*

Neighborhood stressors

-.05

.00

.10*

.13**

R2

.29

.09

.09

.06

F value

74.72**

18.08**

18.52**

11.51**


*p < .05. **p < .01

Discussion

The purpose of this study was to examine whether adolescents in immigrant families related parental warmth, parental punitiveness, and neighborhood stressors to adaptive and maladaptive coping strategies. The results indicated that adolescents who perceived more warmth from their parents were also more likely to turn to families and other forms of social support (e.g., friends) during times of stress. From this we can deduce that when adolescents feel love, nurturance, and warmth from their parents, they are more comfortable communicating to and/or confiding in parents and other family members when dealing with stress. Being able to turn to families during times of stress may generalize to friends and other foundations of social support. The results also indicated that parental support was negatively related to both ventilating feelings and substance use. It is likely that when youth can turn to more adaptive coping strategies (e.g., families, friends), they may not need to turn to maladaptive coping.

In the regression equations, parental harshness was positively related to social support, ventilating feelings, and substance use coping. When adolescents perceived their parents engaging in harsher parenting (e.g., coercion, punishment, guilt, love withdrawal), they might have felt they could not turn to families when stressed. Therefore, they turned to more maladaptive coping strategies as a way to deal with their stress and frustrations. Also, they may model more verbally aggressive communication strategies and exhibit more ventilating feelings (i.e., cursing, yelling) when stressed. Interestingly, in the multiple regressions, harsh parenting was positively related to increased use of social support coping, although it was not significant in the correlations. It is possible that youth who come from a family characterized by harsh parenting may not feel comfortable going to their parents when dealing with stress. So, they may seek out other forms of social support (e.g., friends).

Neighborhood stressors were also positively related to both ventilating feelings and substance use coping. Given that more drugs, alcohol, violence, and aggression characterize high-risk neighborhoods, youth residing in these neighborhoods are more prone to adopting these behaviors as a way to cope. It is also possible that living in high-risk neighborhoods increases adolescents’ frustration, and hence they may be more likely to turn to externalizing behaviors (e.g., venting, using substances) as a way to cope.

In this study, girls reported significantly higher use of social support than boys. This is similar to previous studies (Beets, Pitetti, & Forlaw, 2007) that have also found that girls are more likely to talk to friends when feeling tense, anxious, and/or stressed. Surprisingly, there were no gender differences on the other three coping strategies. It is possible that both boys and girls from immigrant families are equally likely to turn to families since they come from cultural groups that have a high value of family (e.g., Latinos, Asians). Future research should continue to examine gender differences on other forms of coping strategies used by adolescents from immigrant families.

Limitations & Implications

The data were collected using self-report questionnaires in a cross-sectional design, which only evaluate adolescents’ perceptions at one point in time and limit assertions of causality. Thus, longitudinal studies are recommended. Another limitation is that this study consolidated various immigrant groups; thus it did not take into consideration intra-group differences (e.g., Mexican, Salvadoran, Korean). Future studies may want to examine whether perceived parenting and neighborhood stressors impact adolescents from specific immigrant groups differently. Also, this sample was limited to individuals from one school in Los Angeles, which could limit generalizability. Studies using broader, more representative samples are encouraged.

Although limitations to the study exist, the results do provide some implications for practitioners. For example, these results indicated that having more nurturing parents could (a) decrease the use of maladaptive coping strategies (e.g., substance use, ventilating feelings) as a way to cope with stress and (b) increase the likelihood that adolescents will go to families and friends during times of stress. Thus, therapists and/or school counselors could (a) help adolescents recognize supportive parenting and (b) work with parents to model more nurturing and supportive behaviors. Because parental harshness was related to more maladaptive coping strategies, the practitioner could discourage parents from engaging in punitive parenting, love withdrawal, and guilt. The practitioner could also help adolescents reframe perceived harshness as signs of parental nurturance (e.g., grounding may actually be a sign the parents care). Also, parental harshness was positively related to social support coping. This was not necessarily negative if the sources of social support were prosocial friends and/or neighbors, but the adolescents could also turn to friends or neighbors who had negative influences. Thus, parental monitoring could be encouraged to ensure adolescents to seek out healthy social relationships. And finally, if adolescents come from high-risk neighborhoods, it will be difficult for a practitioner to change a neighborhood. However, they could still teach adolescents more adaptive coping methods to handle life stressors. This may be especially important for those adolescents who reside in neighborhoods more prone to stressors.

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