Research of Note for March 2002

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A focus on studies that help youth workers identify the strengths in even the most at-risk youth, but also remind staff to be aware of the apparently growing problem of weight and body image among young boys and girls.

Reaching Out to Homeless and Runaway Youth

The Prevention Researcher, Sept. 2001, Vol. 8, No. 3.
Available for $7 from, (800) 929-2955,
ext. 19.

This recent issue of The Prevention Researcher, a quarterly publication on at-risk youth, includes seven articles on homeless youth. Although informative, most of the articles are not research studies.

However, an article titled “Helping Homeless Youth Help Themselves,” by Sara Jarvis, Elizabeth Lindsey and Nancy Williams, is based on 50- to 90- minute interviews with 12 former runaway and homeless youth. The article presents interesting insights into what the youths believe they learned about moving successfully toward adulthood, and what types of help and helpers had been most effective.

All 12 participants, who were between 18 and 25 when they were interviewed, said they learned from their mistakes and experiences. Three said they had also learned from the mistakes of other friends or family members, and one from the accomplishments of others.

All 12 said that help from others was a critical factor in being able to resolve problems. They identified four types of help that were important: caring; setting boundaries and being held accountable; concrete assistance; and interventions by shelter staff, counselors, therapists and other professionals.

Eleven talked about being cared for by others, including family members and professionals. This did not involve others who tried to cure or solve their problems. They provided attention, unconditional acceptance, nonjudgmental listening and emotional support. Or, as the subjects said, “being there for me,” “letting me make the tough decisions, but guiding me” or “treating me like I was her own.”

Ten spoke about the importance of family and professional helpers who “talked straight” to them – challenging them, holding them accountable, setting boundaries and confronting them about the consequences of their actions.

Concrete assistance included providing groceries, a place to live, medication for mental illness and money for school. Seven said some form of professional intervention had helped them get their lives back on track, whether it was formal counseling, informal conversations or residential treatment.

All 12 talked about the role of their families, but not necessarily as helpful. Three-quarters mentioned the importance of friends (both long-term friends and recent acquaintances).

Eleven of the 12 mentioned working with professional helpers, some of whom had degrees in social work, education or psychology, and others who were described as having helping skills based on life experiences rather than formal degrees. Professionals who were helpful were perceived as caring but also helped the youth be accountable. This was often resented at the time, but appreciated in hindsight.

Teachers, counselors and foster parents were named as some of those who went beyond their assigned roles to reach out. Those who were not helpful were described as uncaring, uninvolved and manipulating clients to make their jobs easier.

Two conditions were essential for successful helping: The helper had to be trusted and the youth had to be ready to accept help. Some youth felt they had to make mistakes before they realized they needed help. And helpers had to prove themselves by keeping promises, honoring confidentiality and treating youth as “whole persons rather than labeling them.”

These formerly homeless youth gave advice to those who want to make a difference in the lives of youth:

• Keep promises.
• Create a safe space where youth can be with others and learn to trust.
• Listen to and accept youth; try to empathize.
• Develop personal relationships rather than keeping a professional distance.
• Don’t pity youth, because it makes them feel worse. Hold them accountable.

The authors also suggest helping youth identify their strengths, including how they have survived rather than how they have failed. Even friends who are “bad examples” can teach youth about the consequences of bad choices.

Despite the frustration, the authors urge youth workers to focus on the possibilities for learning in any situation, including poor decisions and ineffective problem-solving. And remember that even family members who are estranged may be supporters for a youth in the future.

Coping Among Asian-American and Pacific Islander Youth

Psychosocial Adjustment in Asian American/ Pacific Islander Youth
Barbara DeBaryshe, Sylvia Yuen and Ivette Rodriguez Stern.
Adolescent & Family Health, Summer 2001, pp. 63-71.
Available free from DeBaryshe, University of Hawaii, Center on the Family, 2515 Campus Road, Honolulu, HI 96822.

Why do some Asian-American teens do so well despite poverty and their status as both minorities and immigrants? This new study attempted to answer that question by interviewing 55 working-class Asian-American and Pacific Islander youth from 10 to 18 whose parents were affected by the closing of three sugar plantations in Hawaii. The youth and their parents each participated in two-hour interviews. Other information (such as school grades) was also collected.

These were poor families with at least one parent who had recently lost a job or been notified that they would. One in five parents had less than a high school education, 46 percent held a high school diploma, 27 percent had some education after high school and 6 percent had a college degree. Almost two-thirds of the youth described their heritage as mixed Asian/Pacific Island, and one in four parents was an immigrant (usually from the Philippines).

The results showed that the coping strategies the kids used predicted how well they did socially and in school, whereas the parenting practices and social networks predicted whether the kids had behavior problems or engaged in delinquent behavior.

The strategies that were most helpful were seeking social support from friends or others, and taking direct action. In contrast, youth who tended to blame others or get angry were more likely to be involved in delinquent behavior. Coping strategies were not related to other problem behaviors such as temper tantrums or depression.

Parents who used harsh discipline, such as yelling and physical punishment, were more likely to have children who had temper tantrums or were depressed. Authoritative parents – who used positive reinforcement, monitored their children’s activities and expressed support and affection – tended to have children who made friends easily, felt good about themselves and had good social skills. Parenting practices did not predict children’s delinquent behavior.

If youths described their community as supportive, they were less likely to be involved in delinquent activities. Having a
supportive community was especially helpful for kids whose families were under severe financial strain.

This study is small and does not seem to be a random sample, even among the unemployed workers. Nevertheless, it’s useful because it provides information about a minority group that is often overlooked in larger national surveys. The fact that the results are similar to those for other minority groups suggests that many of the factors that help youth cope with stressful lives are the same, regardless of race and ethnicity.

The focus on youth whose working-class parents have just lost their jobs is also a good way to evaluate how kids are doing when they are under stress, although in this case the job loss is recent and it is not clear what will happen to these youths if their parents’ unemployment continues for a long time.

Weight and Body Image: A Problem for Boys and Girls of All Races

Overweight Concerns and Body Dissatisfaction Among Third-Grade Children
Thomas N. Robinson, M.D., Jeannie Y. Chang, K. Farish Haydel and Joel D. Killen.
Journal of Pediatrics, Feb. 2001, Vol. 138, No. 2, pp. 181-7.
Available free from Dr. Robinson at the Department of Pediatrics, Stanford University School of Medicine, 1000 Welch Rd., Palo Alto, CA 94504.

Epidemic Increase in Childhood Overweight, 1986-1998
Richard S. Strauss M.D. and Harold A. Pollack.
Journal of the American Medical Association, Dec. 12, 2001, Vol. 286, No. 22, pp. 2845-8.
Available free from Dr. Strauss at Childhood Weight Control Program, UM-DNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School,
1 Robert Wood Johnson Place, CN-19, New Brunswick, NJ 08903, or

Everybody knows that adolescent girls have concerns about weight and dissatisfaction with their bodies, but a new study of third graders in California raises questions about whether these concerns have now spread to much younger boys and girls.

The study of 895 third graders attending 13 Northern California public schools found that half the white girls, more than two-thirds of the African-American and Hispanic girls, 43 percent of the Asian-American girls and one-third of the Filipino girls expressed concern about their current weight, dissatisfaction with their bodies, or had attempted to lose weight by dieting or fasting. Even more surprising, similar concerns were expressed by 61 percent of African-American boys, and between 35 percent to 45 percent of white, Hispanic, Asian-American and Filipino boys.

When eating disorders were first studied in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, they were primarily a problem of white, relatively affluent girls. In contrast, this study found that inappropriate eating attitudes and behaviors were common among boys and girls of all ethnic groups and in a wide range of social classes, regardless of the weight of the children.

The authors suggest that adults need to help provide young children with more information and encouragement to develop healthy eating behaviors and weight-control strategies and to get more exercise. Youth workers have an important role to play because food, snacks and exercise are a major part of many youth activities.

Of course, not all children who are unhappy about their bodies are overweight or think they are overweight. Some children may worry that they are too skinny or may dislike their bodies for other reasons. Previous Research Watch columns have described studies indicating that obese children are often unaware of how overweight they are.

Is it possible that both findings are correct and there are so many obese children that even though many are unaware of their problems, many others are concerned about their bodies whether they are overweight or not? Or does the fault lie with questionable role models, such as Britney Spears and steroid-pumped male athletes, who have inspired even young children to be aware of their bodies and to consider them inadequate, much as their older siblings do?

Another study, recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, indicates that children are getting heavier. Dr. Richard Strauss found that the percentage of overweight children increased from 9 percent to 11 percent in Western states from 1986 to 1998, and from 8 percent to 17 percent in the South. More than one in four (27 percent) low-income Hispanic and African-American boys were overweight, and the statistics were not much better for upper-income African-American children.

This study is based on the National Longi- tudinal Survey of Youth, which includes more than 8,000 children (ages 4-12) from across the country.

One odd note: Overweight was defined as the top 5 percent of body mass index for age and sex. Because it is not possible to have more than 5 percent having the top 5 percent body mass index, this suggests that the standards need to be redefined.

The increases in overweight youth since 1986 were relatively minor for affluent white girls, compared with other students. For example, in 1986 the percentage of overweight children was almost identical for upper-income white girls and lower-income African-American and Hispanic boys (approximately 6.5 percent for each). However, by 1998, the percentage of overweight upper-income white girls had increased to 9 percent, compared to 27 percent for lower-income African-American and Hispanic boys.

The irony of these two articles is that the second one may contribute to the obsession with weight that the first one reflects. How is it that at the same time that even young children are worried about their bodies, children and adults in the U.S. are more overweight than ever before? Part of it seems to be the availability of snack food, which research has shown encourages children and adults to eat even when they are not hungry. And remember when a large soda was 12 or 16 ounces (instead of 32) and when movie popcorn came in just two small sizes?

Youth workers can’t control the portions at movies and fast-food restaurants, but they can sometimes limit access to vending machines and junk food; encourage youth to drink water by making sure it is available whenever possible; provide fresh fruit, salads, and other healthy foods at least some of the time; and try to limit portion sizes. When adults who work with kids are sensitive to these issues, they can help youths avoid obesity without adding to the obsession with body image.