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Poverty, family conflict, and depression predict adolescent insecurity


Attachment security has long been recognized as one of the hallmarks of adaptive social development in infancy and childhood, and is increasingly being recognized for its similar role in adolescence and adulthood. In adolescence, attachment security reflects the ability to openly and straightforwardly seek out and value close relationships while maintaining perspective and balance within those relationships.

Numerous studies have identified the importance of attachment security in teenagers, linking poor attachment security to a range of significant mental health outcomes from criminal behavior to substance abuse, even across decades. Additionally, studies find these outcomes may be passed onto future generations. But few studies have examined those factors that actually influence the development of adolescent attachment security. Thus, we designed this study to explore that question.

We conducted an intensive, longitudinal study of 101 at-risk ninth and tenth graders, assessing attachment security via an in-depth, hour-long interview that tapped the teens’ ability to think openly and clearly about their experiences in close relationships. Although attachment security is generally quite stable, we found that adolescents became increasingly insecure in the face of stressors that overwhelmed their coping abilities while also cutting them off from opportunities to rely on close relationships for support.

Specifically, we found that poverty, enmeshed family relationships, and depressive symptoms in adolescence were each associated with long-term decreases in the teens’ attachment security. Family poverty, for instance, likely produced such changes by simultaneously overwhelming both the adolescent and his or her parent(s).

In observing actual discussions of disagreements between parents and teens, we found that when these discussions became highly confused and conflicted, guilt-provoking, and pressuring, the teens became increasingly insecure during the following two years. These arguments appeared highly stressful to the teens, but we believe they also make it difficult for the teens to turn to their parents to cope with other stresses.

Finally, we found that depressed adolescents also became more insecure over time. The stress of depression, like the stresses from family poverty or enmeshed arguments, fit the pattern of overwhelming the teen while also resulting in tenser and less supportive family relationships.

These findings raise the possibility that poverty, depression and fractious family relationships may affect adolescent development in a way that has long-term implications for the adolescent and even for his/her offspring. Thus, efforts to reduce poverty in families with adolescents may have long-term implications for adolescent social development. The same can be said about efforts to better meet the mental health needs of depressed adolescents and adolescents experiencing high levels of family conflict.

This study also demonstrated that policies that do not effectively address these problems may not only create impairment and strain for adolescents, but may also leave them vulnerable to developing in ways that fundamentally alter their capacity for future social relationships--including relationships with their own future children.

Stephanie Somerville | EurekAlert!
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