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Role Models, Coping Strategies Promote Better Health in Poor Teens

Cardiovascular risk is reduced for poor teens who access community resources and build coping skills.

--by Jenara Nerenberg Teens hanging out on the street

The Gist

Poverty and stress are known to lead to negative health outcomes for teens, but having sufficient coping skills and positive role models to look up to can help reduce certain cardiovascular risks, according to a new joint study from Northwestern University and the University of British Columbia appearing in the latest issue of Child Development.

Those with impoverished backgrounds have fewer resources available to help them cope with stress, which puts them at a greater risk for hypertension, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and other health problems. Role models and a perspective called the "shift and persist strategy," which is a way of re-framing stressful events and remaining optimistic while looking to the future, can both help to reduce the risk of poor health outcomes. 

The Expert Take

"Having a positive, supportive role model and learning adaptive coping strategies can help buffer poor teens from risk factors for cardiovascular disease," lead author and Northwestern University professor Edith Chen tells Healthline. 

While low socioeconomic status places strain on teens and adults alike, role models have the opportunity to impact and shape teens while they are growing up, thus helping them for the remainder of their adulthood. 

"Supportive role models promote shift-and-persist strategies and have physiological benefits specifically in low-income youth," says Chen.

The Takeaway

If you find yourself in a resource-constrained environment, take the time to read and learn about healthy coping strategies and look to your local community center or Boys and Girls Club for successful adults willing to mentor you. Likewise, if you are an adult who can help mentor a teen from a distressed environment, reach out and let him or her know you are available. 

"This study suggests that teaching low-income youths strategies to re-frame stressful events more positively and view the future optimistically...and encouraging them to connect with supportive role models may help reduce the physiological burden of growing up in poor neighborhoods," says Chen.

Source and Method

The inflammatory marker interleukin-6 was measured in 163 Canadian teens from varying socio-economic backgrounds, and the teens were given questionnaires to assess their stress-coping strategies. Those who were poor but who employed the "shift and persist strategy" and accessed available resources, such as community mentors, showed lower levels of the inflammation marker than did poor teens who lacked coping skills and access to role models. 

Other Research

A 1997 study from the Social Service Review shows that resilience plays a key role in helping teens cope with stress, a quality present in teens from a wide spectrum of socioeconomic backgrounds.

A 2002 study from the Annual Review of Psychology shows that while socioeconomic status affects teens' well-being, its effects are moderated by family structure, external support systems, and individual characteristics.

And a 2008 study from Research in Nursing & Health suggests that teaching teens coping skills can help to prevent obesity and depressive symptoms.

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Tags: Awareness , Public Health & Policy , Latest Studies & Research

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The Healthline Editorial team writes about the latest health news, policy, and research.