Large Study of Teens Builds a Blueprint for Staying Out of Trouble

teenager-silhouette

Gun violence in Chicago made international news again this month after a gunman armed with an assault rifle opened fire on a crowd at a park in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, injuring 13 people, including a three-year-old boy. While no one died this time, it’s a scene that’s all too common. The Chicago Police Department reported 509 murders in 2012, and 317 so far in 2013.

Kristen Jacobson, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago, and postdoctoral scholar Pan Chen, PhD, are studying a large group of teenagers from the Chicago area, including many who have been exposed to this kind of violence. The goal of their research is to find clues about the elements of family, school and community life that can help keep kids out of trouble, and avoid getting caught in the cycle of retaliation.

“You can say, ‘Let’s cure poverty,’ or ‘Let’s get rid of violence,’ and that’s all wonderful, but that’s never going to happen,” Jacobson said. “We know that not all kids in risky situations do poorly, and that some kids respond better than others. So we’re really trying to identify why.”

Kristen Jacobson, PhD

Jacobson and Chen gathered data on more than 3,000 6th to 8th graders from socioeconomically and ethnically diverse schools in several near-Chicago suburbs, focusing on environmental and psychosocial factors that may account for differences in problem behavior. This includes the risks posed by exposure to community violence or certain temperamental vulnerabilities, such as impulsivity, as well as the psychological characteristics and elements of youths’ social environments that can help mitigate those risks.

The research was funded by a $1.5 million National Institutes of Health New Innovator Award Jacobson received in 2007, one of 27 given that year by the NIH to promote innovative research by promising young investigators.

Earlier this year, Chen and Jacobson published two papers using data from Phase 1 of the study. The first, from the journal Youth & Society, looked at which “promotive factors,” i.e. things in a kids’ life that reduce their chances of getting in trouble, had the biggest effect on those who have been exposed to violence.

Through a series of surveys, they measured four dynamics that could moderate the effects of community violence on the risk for delinquency, each encompassing a larger circle of influence. The first factor, future expectations, gauged a teen’s expectations for positive future outcomes, like graduating high school, going to college or getting a job. The second, family warmth, assessed the closeness of their immediate family and how much they feel that people in their families understand them. A third, school attachment, measured how much they felt they belonged in their school, and the fourth looked at neighborhood cohesion, or how much they felt people in their neighborhood looked out for them.

Jacobson and Chen found that for most kids, all four of these factors were linked to lower levels of delinquency. But only one, future expectations, acted as a “protective factor” that reduced the risk effect of community violence.

The second paper, from the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, looked at how impulsive behavior interacted with a similar set of promotive factors in the home and community. In this study, Jacobson and Chen studied two separate familial factors, family warmth and parental knowledge (i.e., how much the teen believes their parents know about their daily activities), along with school connectedness and neighborhood cohesion.

For those prone to impulsive behavior, having a supportive, understanding family seems to help the most. For those exposed to the kind of violence we see in Chicago, the biggest effect seems to come from improving a teen’s own outlook on the future.

This time they analyzed how those factors affect the risk for delinquency in teens who exhibit some level of impulsive behavior, such as the tendency to act on the spur of the moment or respond quickly in a situation without thinking about the consequences. They found that positive family influences played a bigger role than those outside the home. In addition, both family warmth and parental knowledge were more strongly associated with lower rates of delinquency in kids reporting higher levels of impulsivity.

The results of these two studies begin to assemble a blueprint for intervention programs to help at risk kids stay out of trouble. It’s a complex interplay of both psychological characteristics and factors in a teen’s environment that reduce the risk of getting in trouble later. The four concentric circles of influence—neighborhood, school, family and the individual—are linked to lower rates of delinquency in some way. Importantly, the evidence suggests that some of the factors, especially those related to psychological and family processes, may play a more salient role in reducing delinquency for vulnerable youth.

“We wanted to focus on promotive and protective factors as a starting point for providing more implications for prevention and intervention,” Chen said. “If you can improve those related factors, it could lead to decreased levels of problem behaviors or promote a positive environment.”

For those prone to impulsive behavior, having a supportive, understanding family seems to help the most. For those exposed to the kind of violence we see in Chicago, the biggest effect seems to come from improving a teen’s own outlook on the future. Jacobson said this might prove to be the most difficult element to change.

“Many of them know family members and friends who have been killed, and fear for their lives. How can you possibly think that your life is going to have a good outcome when there’s so much evidence to the contrary?” she said.

The goal, she said would be to develop a combination of individual counseling, academic, vocational and community programs that work together to change these attitudes. “Making them think that someone cares about them,” as Jacobson put it.

“We should be doing something to make them think that they can do something with their lives,” she said.

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Chen P., Voisin D.R. & Jacobson K.C. Community Violence Exposure and Adolescent Delinquency: Examining a Spectrum of Promotive Factors, Youth & Society, DOI:

Chen P. & Jacobson K.C. (2013). Impulsivity Moderates Promotive Environmental Influences on Adolescent Delinquency: A Comparison Across Family, School, and Neighborhood Contexts, Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 41 (7) 1133-1143. DOI:

About Matt Wood (514 Articles)

Matt Wood is a senior science writer at the University of Chicago Medicine and nonfiction editor for Another Chicago Magazine.

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