Low-income mothers' mental health may soften the impact of growing up in poverty

August 19, 2002

Growing up in poverty can cause depression and low self-esteem in adolescents, but having a caring mother who feels in control of her life can reduce this effect, says a Penn State researcher.

"Maternal mental health and warmth were found to reduce the direct impact of poverty on adolescents, illustrating the importance of maternal emotional resources in impeding the effects of poverty," says Bridget Goosby, a graduate student in sociology and demography at Penn State.

However, mothers who have depressive symptoms and feel less in control of their lives are more likely to have children with low self-worth and depression, she adds.

"This suggests that maternal mental health serves as a buffer to the direct effects of poverty on her children," Goosby says.

"Maternal warmth is positively associated with adolescent self-worth suggesting that as maternal warmth increases, adolescent self-worth increases as well," adds the Penn State researcher.

Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, Goosby analyzed data on 2855 African-American and White children between the ages of 10 and 14. She presented her results today (Aug. 19) as "The Effects of Poverty Experiences on the Psychological Well-Being of Young Adolescents" at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.

Education also plays a role, Goosby says, as mothers having more education tend to have children with higher levels of self-worth.

"This may illustrate that mothers with higher levels of education are more likely to have the resources and time to devote to the emotional nurturance of their children because of the correlation of education and income," she says.

Her findings also suggest that the duration of poverty has a less significant effect on the self-worth of adolescents than it does on younger children.

"For children that experienced persistent poverty, the prior stigma or lack of resources may no longer be salient," she explains. "Persistently poor children are more likely to live in environments where the majority of children in their school and neighborhood are poor as well. Thus, the factors influencing self-worth may shift toward peer acceptance and family relationships and interactions.

"The findings of this study indicate that experiencing poverty between the ages of 0 and 4 years has the strongest impact on early adolescent self-worth," she adds. "Experiencing economic hardship in early childhood could potentially change a child's emotional and behavioral trajectory."

"Not receiving the emotional and developmental resources from parents due to the strain of economic hardship could lead to developmental difficulties in later childhood, such as lower levels of competence and self-esteem, or poor academic performance," adds Goosby, also affiliated with Penn State's Population Research Institute.

Poverty also tends to have a greater effect on depression and anxiety in White adolescents than it does on Black adolescents, Goosby says.

"African American children are disproportionately represented among poor groups and are more likely to live in racially and socioeconomically homogenous areas," she says. "Poor White children are more likely to live in socioeconomically mixed areas, and may have difficulty identifying with the their economically advantaged peers."

In addition, female adolescents are more likely to experience lower levels of self-esteem than are males.
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Penn State

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