An eight-year study of African-American, white and Hispanic-American children in three regions of the United States has found that African-Americans had the highest level of exposure to risk factors that could lead to behavioral problems, but do not engage in bad behavior at higher rates than the other two groups.
The finding by community-clinical psychologists at the University of Virginia, University of Pittsburgh, the University of Oregon and Oxford University, is published in the current edition of the journal Prevention Science.
The investigators followed a sample of participants at high risk for conduct disorders in Pittsburgh and in rural areas outside of Charlottesville, Va., and Eugene, Ore.
Risks included such factors as frequent moves, low or fluctuating family incomes, substance abuse by parents, absence of fathers, and living in dangerous neighborhoods. Acting-out behaviors would include defiant, noncompliant actions such as disrupting classrooms and hitting peers.
“We found that the African-American youths were exposed to more risk factors than the white or Hispanic populations in all three regions,” said Melvin Wilson, a professor of psychology at U.Va., who led the study. “But we discovered that they were no more vulnerable to child behavior problems than the other two populations.
“One of the key things we learned is that exposure to risk is different from vulnerability to the effects of risk,” he said. “As psychologists, we should just not look at risk exposure, but should go one step further to determine whether risk will lead to actual negative outcomes. Some children living with strong nurturing parents can develop resistance to many different risks.”
However, African-American children were more prone to “internalizing” their fears and problems, resulting in some anxiety issues. Wilson said this can lead to stress, sadness and other depressive symptoms.
The white and Hispanic groups were more prone to “acting out,” and expressing aggressive behaviors.
Wilson said the reason for this may be that people who are exposed to many risks may develop a sort of immunity, allowing them to better shrug off the negative experiences they have.
“They become adaptable,” Wilson said. “Although they are more likely to keep it inside.”
But people who are less exposed to risk are more likely to react to it because it is beyond their normal experience.
“Kids in quiet and calm two-parent homes are more likely to act out their negative feelings when exposed to bad situations, such as a divorce,” Wilson said, “whereas children who live with a single parent may be less vulnerable to trauma.”
Likewise, children in rural areas may experience stress by going to school in an urban area, but kids who already live in urban areas are used to the hustle and bustle of the urban setting.
Wilson and his colleagues are working with parents in their study groups to help children adapt to negative circumstances and to support positive child behaviors.
“We want to work at reducing exposure to bad experiences and conditions, but also design intervention programs to increase resistance to bad circumstances,” Wilson said. “We are helping parents to be more positive in monitoring and managing their children.”
Wilson said parents can reinforce good behavior instead of being coercive to correct bad behavior.
“Parents are our greatest resource,” he said. “We are helping them to be positive and reinforcing for their kids. It works much better to reward good behavior rather than focusing on and punishing bad behavior. This gets kids on the right track, that there are positive results when they do well, and they will then more likely repeat those good behavior patterns.”