“At Risk Youth” Aren’t Where You Might Think

“At Risk Youth” Aren’t Where You Might Think


In the field of social work, adolescents are commonly categorized as “at risk youth” if they live in poverty, come from single parent homes, and or live in under resourced urban or rural communities. At risk youth are statistically less likely to finish high school, more likely to become involved in gang activity or delinquent criminal activity and are less likely to achieve socioeconomic status to rise out of poverty.


Programs to bolster education, health care, criminal justice, and recreation for “at risk youth” can be found in many depressed areas to address these risk factors and improve quality of life.


Does this mean that adolescents from suburban, two parent homes live in a no-risk world?


Middle class or affluent homes provide kids with more resources in parenting, financial support, education and health care, which would suggest that risk of maladjustment has been reduced greatly by having these securities that children in poverty do not have.


The reality is, for kids in suburban, middle or upper class families, risks of emotional and behavioral maladjustment remain.


Several studies since the 1990’s report an increase in depression and anxiety symptoms among middle and high school students in suburban communities. Tied to these reports, are increased numbers of adolescents engaging in high risk behaviors with alcohol, drugs and sexual activity (Luthar 2003)


What factors impact adolescents from middle to upper class suburban environments differently than low-income urban or rural adolescents? Luthar and Becker (2002) highlight two factors in their research: achievement pressure and isolation from adults.


Their work describes kids from “upwardly mobile communities” experiencing pressure to succeed academically and athletically in order to “maximize their long-term academic success”.  This suggests that the messages kids receive about achievement come from their parents, as well as the general community of school and peer relationships.


Choosing a community in which to raise children often begins with choice of school, hence a plan for the child to achieve in the best possible environment. Parents want this for their children, communities respond with schools with strong academic and athletic programs to meet the demand.


The addition of after school athletics and activities result in adolescents with not only intense schedules, but intense expectation of excellent performance in the “extra” activity as well as in school. The effect this focus on achievement has on adolescents is often seen in the adolescent focusing inward on their own obstacles toward academic and athletic success, resulting in reports of depression and anxiety.


Adults often describe junior high and older children being left home alone as promoting independence and self-sufficiency. Parent’s work schedules, after school activities, increased interest in peers, and shuffle of kids between divorced parents also impact this isolation.


However, isolation from parents impacts kids in two significant wayslack of adult supervision of their behavior and emotional isolation from the parent(s).


Further studies describe the quality of the parent-child relationship and the impact of detachment, critical attention and lax discipline have on kids as they are developmentally working on their sense of identity.


How can middle and upper class families lessen the risk of emotional and behavioral maladjustment in their adolescent children?  Maintaining an emotional attachment with the child that involves engaged and emotional connection throughout middle and high school years is essential.


This attachment allows the adolescent to manage their intense emotional experiences in a safer way, knowing their parent loves them with or without a condition of achievement. In other words, adolescents are highly sensitive to the critical messages about grades, clothes, appearance, peers, and the like from their parents. Messages of unconditional love an acceptance are still needed beyond age 12.


Adult supervision is still needed, specifically by a parent (rather than sitter, nanny, etc) for young adolescents to lessen the opportunity for drug and alcohol use, but also to maintain the relationship between parent and child.


As for the focus on achievement, a consideration for how the child learns and how the parent can communicate support for that learning is helpful. Organized activities and sports are still great, and may have a greater impact when balanced with unstructured play and exploration time into the high school years. Discussions about college and careers are important, along with discussions about identity, becoming an adult and emotional well-being.


Luthar, S. S. (2003). The Culture of Affluence: Psychological Costs of Material Wealth. Child Development, 74, 1581-1593.


Luthar, S. S. & Barkin, S. H. 2012). Are affluent youth truly “at risk”? Vulnerability and resilience across three diverse samples.Development and Psychopathology, 24, 429-449.


Luthar, S. S. & Becker, B.E. (2002). Priveleged but pressured? A study of affluent youth. Child Development, 73, 1593-1610.