Associations between important aspects of the home and family and adolescents’ behavior and well-being are the primary focus. Families with few economic resources are more likely to have adolescents who have behavioral problems, who are psychologically distressed, and who do less well in school. Parental behavior and psychological well-being in less adequately resourced homes partially explain adolescents’ poorer functioning. Parents in economically deprived homes are more distressed, inconsistent, and harsh in their parenting, and are less likely to create an organized and structured home environment. All of these can lead adolescents to display psychological distress.
In linking home environment and parenting to adolescents’ behavior, empirical work has not kept pace with conceptual formulations of the factors that may shape parenting practices. Arguments have been made claiming that parenting behavior is shaped by parents’ assessment of the qualities adolescents will need in the family’s social environment. Findings addressing this theory are in short supply. But research has shown that parents’ emotional support, control, supervision, and home organization are positively linked to adolescents’ psychological well-being and functioning. Also, African American parents who have higher academic expectations for their adolescents and who prepare them for the school experience tend to have adolescents who perform better in school.
Findings on the effects of neighborhoods suggest that factors reflecting the economic status of the neighborhood (median income, percentage of professional workers, percentage of abandoned houses) are associated with adolescents’ psychological functioning and their likelihood of engaging in problem behavior. Processes mediating these relations are less clear but suggest that lower emotional support may explain some of the problematic behavior.
The prevention of some of the problems of poor adolescents and their families calls for the investment of social and financial capital in disadvantaged communities. Many of the problems of poor, inner-city families may be rooted in the absence of both jobs and people working for pay at regular hours. It is argued that the lack of employment means that individuals do not have regular, legitimate forms of income; models of persons using their skills to lawfully maintain a living; or activities that structure the flow of events in the community.
The investment of capital may also include the introduction of resources into communities (markets, stores, banks, schools) that will enhance the quality of life of its residents. Consequently, parents-less psychologically distressed than before-would engage in better parenting that would result in fewer adjustment problems for adolescents.
Inner-city ethnic minority families and their children, without the introduction of increased resources, are at considerably greater risk for problems than the population as a whole. Thus, it is important to assess the socioemotional functioning of poor, ethnic minority youngsters and the circumstances that pose a threat to their well-being. Comprehensive, family-centered child development programs in urban communities could, with parental consent, regularly assess the wellbeing of children and adolescents. It is important that such programs be designed with an awareness of the relationships between neighborhood characteristics, family environment, parenting, social networks, and adolescent adjustment. For example, adolescents identified with behavioral problems may also have problems at home that are rooted in the risky circumstances and stressors of their neighborhood. Therefore, treatment of the adolescents’ problem behavior would need to consider the possibility of initiating changes in multiple domains.
A more concerted effort must be devoted to using empirical research to assist at-risk families. For example, research has shown that the lack of availability of vital resources in neighborhoods is associated with reduced functioning in families. This indicates the important need of neighborhood revitalization in terms of community resources for families and their members. Mothers’ psychological distress has also been shown to be positively associated with the lack of availability of medical or financial resources. Thus, the introduction of these needed resources to communities would mean lower levels of distress and anxiety for caregivers. Less caregiver distress is likely to result in more positive interactions with youngsters in the home. Similarly, mothers experiencing financial problems are prone to depression because they are not hopeful about the future. As a result, mothers and adolescents may experience problems communicating, leading to adolescents’ depression. So two goals of intervention should be the improvement of the economic opportunities and the development of resources for such families, including the creation of therapeutic services aimed at both mothers’ sense of hopelessness and parent-adolescent communication problems.
There is a positive association between social support and the functioning of adults and children. It is important that-whether through churches, schools, social agencies, or other media-information on important family practices, such as organizing a structured family environment, be conveyed to families. Indeed, the creation of an organized and structured family environment among at-risk families helps buffer the impact of stressors they face. Family organization is positively associated with good parenting practices and adolescent adjustment. Given this relationship, it is possible that, by creating or utilizing mechanisms in the community (schools, churches, support groups) through which families may access social support, families may function more adequately than is currently the case. Also, when they are linked to support networks, parents and adolescents may develop new community ties.
Finally, it is important to acknowledge that there are limits to the resilience of individuals and the power of social institutions to overcome poverty or race problems. As important as social support may be to families, it may not enable families to overcome all of the challenges they face. For example, individuals facing discrimination in the workplace may not be as depressed as expected because of support they receive from family. However, the fact remains that such discrimination limits the individual’s capacity for job advancement and increased financial resources for the family. Indeed, there has been an overreliance on services in the United States when many problems of poor families have their roots in social and economic policies and practices that may require controversial political solutions.