Motivation and emotion/Book/2021/Youth at risk

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Youth at risk:
Who are youth at risk and what are they at risk of?


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Figure 1. Youth at risk will appear dissimilar to other adolescents at first glance[say what?][factual?].

The various stages in a human's pre-adult life can be a fulfilling and nostalgic period in their overall lives. The adolescent stage in life is one that is unique because it involves an immense level of growth which will occur both mentally and physically. Those experiencing this part of their lives will begin the process of forming opinions and ideas that will establish the foundation for their self-concept. However, some teenagers in this stage will have a less positive experience due to being subject to less fortunate circumstances than their peers.

When a young individual is set at an unfavourable position as a result of multiple negative factors impacting their daily life, they are considered to be “at risk”. Youth at risk are distinguished from their peers due to sociocultural or psychological factors beyond their control that place them in a disadvantageous position (Follesø, 2015). One of the reasons for the "at risk" label being is due to their educational outcomes being perceived as being too low with little hope of achieving as much as their cohort (Riele, 2006). Children who fall in this category are significant because they require a higher level of assistance in their lives compared to their peers. If they do not receive the proper care that is required for a seamless progression into adulthood, they are prone to leading a tumultuous adult life. Certain theories such as General Strain Theory (GST) can help explain why it is that children tend to engage in risky behavioural patterns that halt their progress in life (Agnew, 1992).

Intervention programs exist in the form of support groups such as outreach programs which target demographics where disadvantaged youth are prevalent (Szeintuch, 2014). Programs of this format are essential because they provide assistance to less privileged children which they otherwise would not receive. There is also the mental ability of psychological resilience which can be trained in people so that they cope better during stressful situations and can safely stabilise their mind (Fletcher & Sarkar, 2013). Introducing psychological resilience strengthening methods to the more underprivileged youth will be wholly beneficial for their development.

Focus questions:

  • What constitutes being "at risk"?
  • What are some of the risk factors associated with youth at risk?
  • How can psychological theories assist those at risk?

What constitutes being "at risk"?

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There are multiple features that are commonly associated with youth who are labelled as 'at risk'. Generally this label is applied to youth who are considered to be in danger of engaging in risky behaviour that could harm either themselves or their peers. For adolescents who receive this label, they would have received it as a result of them being considered to be at risk of either one or more negative consequences associated with at-risk youths (Resnick & Burt, 1996). These children are at risk of falling victim to various examples of adversity such as a tenuous family environment, poverty, criminal activity, mental health issues and an overall lesser quality of life. Being affected by either one of the previously mentioned problems will lead to the adolescent facing great difficulty in transitioning into adult life. Adjusting to the new set of responsibilities associated with the prospect of adulthood will be more strenuous for these individuals than their less adversely affected peers at school (Smith, Lizotte, Thornberry & Krohn, 1995). As a result of the negative factors that detrimentally affect their lives, they are more susceptible to delinquency than their peers (Smith, Lizotte, Thornberry & Krohn, 1995). Engaging in delinquent behaviour is significant because of the ramifications it may have for the offenders when they attempt to transition into adulthood.

What are some of the risk factors associated with youth at risk?

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Home environment

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The life that a child is exposed to within their homes is responsible for shaping how they work and interact with others when outside of home. Having access to a stable home life is necessary for a growing teenager to have knowledge of how to function conventionally when they are outside of their comfort zone. At-risk youth are notable in this regard because they are generally exposed to a home life where they face hardships that may harm or even stunt their mental and emotional growth.[factual?]

A longitudinal study [where?] that covered 574 children from age 5 to 21 found that those who were physically abused during their first five years of life faced greater difficulty as they aged (Lansford et. al, 2007). Physically abused children were more likely to be arrested for delinquent behaviour as juveniles and reported less high school graduations than non-abused participants (Lansford et. al, 2007). Studies of this format are clearly convey how the trauma experienced by a developing child can detrimentally impact their ability to function in society. Being able to follow an individual as they advance through the various stages of life provides an idea of how significant events can alter the course of their development.

Salzinger et. al (1993) completed a study which involved physically abused and non-abused children aged 8-12 and had them assign each other peer ratings and peer nominations to determine social status. Physically abused children were rated less favourably than non-abused and were seen as more aggressive by their peers (Salzinger et. al, 1993). The study provides further evidence of how children who are victims of physical abuse are more susceptible to being socially maladjusted.

Socioeconomic status

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The living conditions under which a child is living Template:Awkard will have a substantial impact on their overall mood and state of mind. Having access to a comfortable home with the necessary resources to live a care-free life is paramount in fostering stable development in children. Some children are at a disadvantage in this regard as their parents lack the income to supply all of the required basic necessities that others enjoy.[factual?]

Poverty occurs when household income is found to be insufficient to cover the costs associated with basic necessities such as food, shelter and clothing (Atkinson, 1987). The inability of a parent to sufficiently provide a healthy lifestyle will induce a heightened level of stress which will be felt by their children as well. It has been found that children living in poverty are exposed to a wide range of risk factors that detrimentally impact their ability to lead a healthy lifestyle (Blakely, Kieft, Wilson & Woodward, 2005). Some of the youth who do not have access to a desirable home and have to skip meals at times will be burdened with increased stress levels. Children as young as 6 years old are capable of feeling the stress of having to live in a state of poverty according to an analysis of associations between poverty and stress in individuals aged 6-18 (Wadsworth et. al, 2008). Additionally, poverty-related stress was found to be associated with legal problems, substance abuse, school dropout as well as various mental health complications (Wadsworth et. al, 2008). The stress of having to deal with the reality of a low-income lifestyle was thought to have caused them to engage in such behaviour (Wadsworth et. al, 2008). In adolescent males aged 16 [where?], poverty was found to have an effect on their tendency to engage in delinquent behaviour and their experiences of academic failure (Pagani et. al, 1999). Studies of this nature are significant as they provide correlations between the ability [awkward expression?] of poverty to lead adolescents down a path of deviant behaviour.

School environment

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Education is crucial for all individuals to ensure that they may lead a stable adult life and have knowledge of how to function in a modern society. To fully gain the knowledge that they require to actualise their goals means that they would need to focus much of their attention on the tasks assigned to them by teachers. However, in some school settings there are individuals who fall behind the cohort with regard to their academic competence. Numerous reasons exist for why they might lag behind their peers, but one external factor that impedes the progression of a school student is bullying (Olweus, 1994).

The notion of examining the effects of bullying in schools was not present until the 1970s where it started to begin as an area of research (Olweus, 1994). It has been an area of interest for psychologists as they seek to understand the effect of bullying on mental health and academic performance in victims. Huang (2020) analysed the association between school bullying and academic performance in Chinese school students with consideration of how it affected their sense of belonging in their cohort. Findings from the analysis suggested that being bullied as well as the overall bullying climate at school carried a negative relationship with academic performance of students in reading, science and maths (Huang, 2020). Additionally, the students’ sense of belonging at their school was negatively impacted by their experiences with bullying (Huang, 2020). With regard to the concept of sense of belonging, Perren and Hornung (2005) investigated the relation between bullying and delinquent behaviour in adolescents. It was found that bullies and victims of bullying were prone to engage in more delinquent behaviour than non-affected students with victims reporting lower levels of peer acceptance than all other groups (Perren & Hornung, 2005). These studies provide evidence of how being bullied can lead to children feeling disconnected from their peers which in turn leads to their engaging in maladaptive behaviours. In doing so, these individuals present validity to the idea that bullying can cause otherwise normal students to be seen as being at risk.

Minority groups

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Some settings are unique because they involve a multicultural society with various groups co-existing and being mindful of their individual differences. Other social environments may be less accepting of individuals who deviate from the cultural norm by way of their ethnicity or their sexual orientation. People from ethnic minority groups or who identify with a less common sexual identity such as LGBT-aligned individuals face discrimination from other groups. Having to endure harassment or discrimination of this kind during their childhood and adolescence presents harmful ramifications for their wellbeing.[factual?]

Racial discrimination exists as a valid predictor of lessened mental health stability in affected individuals. Priest et. al (2011) investigated the efficacy of racism in determining the social and emotional wellbeing of 345 Indigenous Australian teenagers. Nearly a third of participants reported experiences of racism and it was found to be significantly associated with depression, anxiety, suicidal tendencies and substandard mental wellbeing (Priest et. al, 2011). These findings are substantial because they provide evidence of how facing racial discrimination causes individuals to be left in a worse state mentally. It is a common theme in much of the research focused on the effects of racial discrimination on all individuals who are impacted by it beyond solely minors. Walker et. al (2017) oversaw a longitudinal study that investigated the prevalence of suicide ideation in African-American youth with a mean age of 10.56 and a second wave of data collected two years later. Findings suggested that perceived racial discrimination was responsible for heightened levels of suicide ideation in participants as well as noticeable symptoms of depression in male and female participants alongside anxiety for the female group only (Walker et. al, 2017). This particular study gains its significance from how it identifies suicide ideation and symptoms of depression and anxiety in a remarkably young group.

LGBT individuals are closely linked with ethnic minority groups as they also experience extensive discrimination during their youth. Sexual minorities are often subject to the same type of discrimination as ethnic minorities as their status as they are attacked for their identity. LGBT youth are reported as being more likely to engage in self-harm or suicidal ideation behavioural patterns while displaying increased symptoms of depression according to a survey on youth in Boston (Almeida et. al, 2009). Additionally, perceived discrimination was highlighted by the researchers as being a major influence for why these youth were experiencing such pronounced emotional distress (Almeida et. al, 2009). LGBT youth and similar minority youth are aligned by the risks they face by outgroups who victimise them for their identity.

General Strain Theory

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General strain theory (GST) is a psychological theory that was developed for the purpose of explaining why individuals engage in deviant behaviour (Agnew, 1992). The theory expands on previously developed strain theory by being more focused on youth whereas previous strain theory was more broad and was usually applied to adults. It is primarily used in the field of criminology as it provides a model that displays the reasons for why individuals engage in criminal activity.

One important distinction of GST that separates it from other kinds of strain theory is that it recognises the importance of other factors beyond financial strain that can cause criminal behaviour (Agnew, 1992). For this reason it can be applied to the plight of at-risk youth as they face strain from more than just financial factors so this model provides a clear view of how they descend into delinquent behaviour patterns.

Figure 3. Simple model of GST that is adapted for at-risk youth.

Any functioning model of GST is separated into three distinct sections. The first section will be the ‘sources of stress’ and when considering at-risk youth these sources might include their family life, their socioeconomic status, their experience of school and their status in a minority group. Because these factors are cause for stress, they will lead the individual to experience a number of different emotions. These emotions form the second section of the model which represents the ‘negative emotions’ which may include a number of harmful emotions such as frustration, rage, depression and anxiety. These emotions are significant because they alter an individual’s mindset and cause them to become more volatile and often lead directly into the third section. The third section represents ‘criminal behaviour’ and is the general endpoint following the previous two sections working in conjunction to set an individual down a ruinous path. This theory is significant for this reason as it allows for the clear display of the harmful factors that are associated with at-risk youth and how it affects their mental state.


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Support groups

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Various support groups are available in different forms for identifying and attending to at-risk youth at an early stage in their lives. These groups are instrumental in providing the necessary assistance for disadvantaged youth as they help them in areas where they normally would not receive help. The main method of assistance provided to the affected is by supplying emotional support which they may not have received otherwise due to poverty or a dysfunctional home environment.

Mentorship programs are one such example of a support program that can lead at-risk youth down a path of stability. A study was performed on the effectiveness of a mentorship program and an Intensive Supervision Probation (ISP) unit in preventing recidivism in Canadian youth gang members (Weinrath, Donatelli & Murchison, 2016). The study determined that the mentorship program was more effective [than?] in preventing recidivism following an interview with participants and also continual observational data (Weinrath et. al, 2016). Data obtained from this study gains its importance from the fact that offering close emotional support was more beneficial than the less supportive ISP unit.

Academic intervention support programs are also found to be beneficial when used for the purpose of providing assistance to at-risk youth. Zhang et. al (2014) examined the effect of an early academic intervention program in increasing academic success in youth at risk. Findings from the study suggested that the early intervention program yielded higher academic results for the at-risk youth that received it than those that did not (Zhang et. al, 2014). These results are significant because they provide supporting evidence to the belief that early intervention programs can assist youth at achieving increased academic performance. It provides an example of an intervention program that can be utilised to lead at-risk youth towards a path of recovery.

Psychological resilience

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Psychological resilience is characterised as the ability of an individual to calmly cope during stressful situations. Psychological resilience can be strengthened through the use of certain mental techniques that can be taught to individuals from specialists (Fletcher & Sarkar, 2013). This concept can be implemented into certain programs that can be operationalised for the purpose of supporting at-risk youth. These disadvantaged youth would see the most benefit from this type of intervention as it targets their ability to cope with stressful situations, which would help them more than other less negatively affected youth.[factual?]

Borman and Overman (2004) led a study that was focused on promoting resilience [how?] in disadvantaged elementary-aged students from minority and low-income backgrounds. Following the completion of the study, the participants saw increased participation in class activities, high internal locus of control, a more positive outlook on school and increased self-esteem (Borman & Overman, 2004). The primary outcome from this study was that promoting psychological resilience in the students that required it made them approach their education with a more positive mindset. By increasing the resilience of at-risk youth, they will be better equipped to navigate stressful situations. Academic situations can be stressful for some as a result of low confidence or because of outside stressors impacting their ability to absorb knowledge. Having access to programs that increase their resilience in the face of adversity will be optimal for allowing a smoother transition into adulthood for these disadvantaged youth.


Choose the correct answer and click "Submit":

Which of the following negative factors will cause youth to be at risk?

Being a victim of physical abuse.
Growing up in abject poverty.
Being subject to bullying at school.
All of the above


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Growing up can be turbulent and traumatic. The term, at-risk youth, refers to several common features, but normally some form of delinquency. When youth behaviour takes on dangerous elements then it is labelled as risky, and this can lead to injury of self or others. Many risk factors exist that act as a burden to both children and adolescents, halting their development. There are certain antecedents to a difficult adulthood such as being a victim of child abuse, living in poverty, being bullied by peers and suffering discrimination for one’s race or sexual identity. Identifying these antecedents will greatly assist an individual in being able to function normally at school in the short term and lead a successful adult career in the long term. To combat these risk factors, various support groups are available that can rejuvenate jaded youth[for example?]. Additionally, psychological theories such as psychological resilience exist as a means of properly equipping these disadvantaged youth to stay calm when dealing with their numerous stressors[how?].

See also

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Agnew, R. (1992). Foundation for a general strain theory of crime and delinquency. Criminology, 30(1), 47-88.

Almeida, J., Johnson, R. M., Corliss, H. L., Molnar, B. E., & Azrael, D. (2009). Emotional distress among LGBT youth: The influence of perceived discrimination based on sexual orientation. Journal of youth and adolescence, 38(7), 1001-1014.

Atkinson, A. B. (1987). On the Measurement of Poverty. Econometrica, 55(4th ed.), 749-764.

Blakely, T., Hales, S., Kieft, C., Wilson, N., & Woodward, A. (2005). The global distribution of risk factors by poverty level. Bulletin of the World Health Organisation, 83(2), 118-126.

Borman, G. D., & Overman, L. T. (2004). Academic resilience in mathematics among poor and minority students. The Elementary School Journal, 104(3), 177-195.

Follesø, R. (2015). Youth at Risk or Terms at Risk? Sage Publications, 23(3), 240–253.

Fletcher, D., & Sarkar, M. (2013). Psychological resilience. European Psychologist, 18(1), 12-23.

Huang, L. (2020). Exploring the relationship between school bullying and academic performance: the mediating role of students’ sense of belonging at school. Educational Studies, 1-17.

Lansford, J. E., Miller-Johnson, S., Berlin, L. J., Dodge, K. A., Bates, J. E., & Pettit, G. S. (2007). Early physical abuse and later violent delinquency: A prospective longitudinal study. Child maltreatment, 12(3), 233-245.

Olweus, D. (1994). Bullying at school. In Aggressive behavior (pp. 97-130). Springer, Boston, MA.

Pagani, L., Boulerice, B., Vitaro, F., & Tremblay, R. E. (1999). Effects of poverty on academic failure and delinquency in boys: A change and process model approach. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 40(8), 1209-1219.

Perren, S., & Hornung, R. (2005). Bullying and delinquency in adolescence: Victims’ and perpetrators’ family and peer relations. Swiss Journal of Psychology, 64(1), 51-64.

Priest, N. C., Paradies, Y. C., Gunthorpe, W., Cairney, S. J., & Sayers, S. M. (2011). Racism as a determinant of social and emotional wellbeing for Aboriginal Australian youth. Medical Journal of Australia, 194(10), 546-550.

Resnick, G., & Burt, M. (1996). Youth at Risk: Definitions and Implications for Service Delivery. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 66(2), 172-188.

Riele, K. (2006). Youth ‘at risk’: Further marginalizing the marginalized? Journal of education policy, 21(2), 129.

Salzinger, S., Feldman, R. S., Hammer, M., & Rosario, M. (1993). The effects of physical abuse on children's social relationships. Child development, 64(1), 169-187.

Smith, C., Lizotte, A. J., Thornberry, T. P., & Krohn, M. D. (1995). Resilient youth: Identifying factors that prevent high-risk youth from engaging in delinquency and drug use. Current perspectives on aging and the life course, 4, 217-247.

Szeintuch, S. (2014). Street Work and Outreach: A Social Work Method?. The British Journal of Social Work, 45(6), 19231934.

Wadsworth, M. E., Raviv∗, T., Reinhard, C., Wolff, B., Santiago, C. D., & Einhorn, L. (2008). An indirect effects model of the association between poverty and child functioning: The role of children's poverty-related stress. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 13(2-3), 156-185.

Walker, R., Francis, D., Brody, G., Simons, R., Cutrona, C., & Gibbons, F. (2017). A longitudinal study of racial discrimination and risk for death ideation in African American youth. Suicide and Life‐Threatening Behavior, 47(1), 86-102.

Weinrath, M., Donatelli, G., & Murchison, M. J. (2016). Mentorship: A missing piece to manage juvenile intensive supervision programs and youth gangs?. Canadian journal of criminology and criminal justice, 58(3), 291-321.


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