This study used a mixed method, prospective, multi-informant design to (a) identify coping strategies used by youth residing in urban poverty and (b) test whether these coping strategies buffer the effects of stress exposure when adult support is present and when absent. Method: There were 286 youth ages 10 to 16 (mean age at Time 1 13; 65% female; 34% male; 1% not identified; 46% African American; 25% Latino; 11% European American; 8% Asian American, 4% Mixed/Biracial, 6% Other) and their parents who participated. Thematic analyses were used to code adolescent interviews about protective factors to identify specific coping strategies used. Hierarchical regression analyses tested whether these coping strategies moderate the association between stress exposure and psychological symptoms for youth with and without adult support. Results: Youth identified multiple coping strategies as protective including Expressing Oneself, Self-Soothing, Seeking Help, Seeking Safety, Distraction, Problem-Solving, Self-Care, and Avoidance. A number of these coping strategies (Expressing Oneself, Self-Soothing, Seeking Help, and Seeking Safety) attenuated the association between stressors and psychological symptoms over time for youth with adult support. For youth without adult support, a number of the strategies they identified as protective (Distraction, Problem-Solving, and Self-Care) accentuated the association between stress exposure and psychological symptoms over time. The only strategy that proved protective for youth without adult support was avoidance. Conclusions: Findings suggest that youth require adult support to effectively make use of a range of coping strategies and that avoidance is the sole effective strategy for youth without support.
Results generally support our hypotheses with some unexpected exceptions. First, the low-income urban youth in our sample generated a range of coping strategies that mostly map onto existing conceptualizations with some potentially unique to this population. In particular, the Avoid Theme fits neatly within the most well validated and commonly used conceptualizations of Avoidance and Disengagement Coping (Ayers et al., 1996; Connor-Smith et al., 2000). The Reframe, Express/Cathart, Problem Solve, Distract, and Seek Help from Others Themes also fit easily within the most well-validated and common designations of Active/Distraction/ Social Support Seeking/Primary and Secondary Control Coping (Ayers et al., 1996; Connor-Smith et al., 2000).
The remaining coping themes (Big Picture, Self Soothe, Build Resources/Pursue Goals, Self Care, and Safety Seeking) fit less neatly within these most validated conceptualizations but most are related in some way to other existing conceptualizations. For example, Big Picture has some overlap with Religious Coping on the COPE Inventory (Carver, 2013) and other measures (Skinner et al., 2003) though it is broader than these.
The same is true for Self Soothe and (a) Substance Use on the COPE Inventory (Carver, 2013), (b) Self-Calming on the Child Perceived Coping Questionnaire (Rossman, 1992; Skinner et al., 2003), (c) Sedation on McCrae’s (1984) modified version of the Ways of Coping Checklist (Skinner et al., 2003), (d) Palliation on the Stress and Coping Process Questionnaire (Perrez & Reicherts, 1992; Skinner et al., 2003), and (e) Drinking Alcohol on Laux and Weber’s coping measure (Laux & Weber, 1991) though the Self Soothe theme is broader than any of these. Similarly, the Do Right Theme has some overlap with Make Amends on the COPE Inventory (Carver, 2013) though it is broader than that construct. Additionally, the Self Care Theme has some overlap with Massage, which appears on several measures specific to medical conditions or pain (Gil, Williams, Thompson, & Kinney, 1991; Skinner et al., 2003; Walker, Smith, Garber, & Van Slyke, 1997) though Self Care is broader as well.
The one theme that did not appear among the 400 coping strategies identified by Skinner and colleagues (2003) was Safety Seeking. This theme fits conceptually with an active, engaged, primary control approach though it has a specific focus not represented on other measures and may be especially relevant for low-income urban youth exposed to severe and chronic stressors including community violence and police brutality.
Also consistent with our hypotheses, we found that a significant minority of youth did not report adult support for their coping efforts. Although most youth did identify adult support, almost one third of this sample (28%, 81 youth) did not. This large percentage is consistent with a large body of research that has documented the negative effects of poverty, in general, and urban poverty, in particular, on social support systems for youth (e.g., Evans, 2004; Sánchez et al., 2014; U.S. Census Bureau, 2016). Our final hypotheses that all identified coping strategies would be more effective for youth who also report adult support, and that active or engaged coping strategies would be, particularly, ineffective without adult support were only partially supported as discussed further below.