Teens, Poor Choices, and Getting Back on Track: What Does the Research Say?

By Leah B. Mazzola

How many adults want to relive their teens? Not me. I may be interested in going back to make better choices, otherwise, I’m happy I made it out with enough years ahead to make up for all of my not so bright moves then.  The teen years are a hard time.  Teens look old enough to be expected to make adult choices, but lack the developmental maturity to fully grasp long-term effects of poor choices today (Grisso et al. 2003).  They simply fail to pause long enough to think that far ahead when the choice today directly affects how they feel right now or what they really want to do at the moment.  Yes, teens do have the capacity to choose, but a large body of research tells us many factors beyond their control make those adult-like choices more difficult than we would prefer.

Teens are dealing with changing brains, changing bodies, and a fragile self-concept in a transforming social world that we all know can be brutal for even the most popular kids.  Psychological and social immaturity through these years increases risk-taking, impulsivity, susceptibility to peer influence, sensation seeking, and lack of future orientation (Bartol & Barol, 2012).  Hence, too often failing to stop and reflect or project before acting.  As a result, the majority of adolescents become involved in some form of adolescent-limited deviance (e.g. substance use, vandalism, theft) that begins in adolescence, increases through age sixteen, decreases after seventeen, and desists into adulthood (Conroy, 2012; Moffitt, 1993; Scott & Grisso, 1998; Steinberg, 2007; Steinberg & Monahan, 2007).  No, I did not make that up.  That means a teen engaging in some form of deviance is common enough to be considered normal. Not surprised right? Even violent criminal behavior in adolescents is not a reliable predictor of future criminal behavior (Moffitt, 1456; Vincent et al. 2012).  So, there is hope for teens involved in problem behaviors to redirect before it’s too late.

Regardless, the risks related to many of these behaviors are serious enough to warrant caring adults and professionals dedicated to effective intervention strategies and support through this time.  The good news is that the literature also shows numerous protective factors help to keep kids on track or get them back on track as they process through this stage.  Quite some time ago, developmental psychologists found the top two protective factors for intervention or prevention are personal intolerance of deviance and positive orientation toward school (Jessor et al. 1995).  They also found the top two risk factors were friends modeling problem behavior and low expectations of success (Jessor et al. 1995).

Now, apply that bit of knowledge to the at-risk or high-risk teen who is already involved in deviance of some sort (rules out personal intolerance of deviance), and you have three very important areas of focus for intervention: work to enhance the teen’s motivation and engagement around academic goals, work to enhance the teen’s sense of self-efficacy or confidence, and incorporate positive social support.

Motivation and engagement with school and enhancing self-efficacy or confidence go hand-in-hand.  An enormous body of self-efficacy research supports a person’s sense of self-efficacy determines whether they will try something at all, how much effort they will put into it, and how long they will persist when the task becomes challenging (Bandura, 1997).  The simplest way to begin enhancing confidence and self-efficacy is to focus on what the teen does right, what he or she is good at, what makes them special, his or her personality and character strengths, etc.  Teens engaging in problem behaviors have plenty opportunities to hear about what they are doing wrong.  The extrinsic motivation that comes with feeling guilty or fearing consequences is temporary.  We must tap into and trigger the teen’s intrinsic motivation to change rather than continuously pressing the obvious.  One way to do that is to find something they enjoy doing and find a way to incorporate it into positive and productive activities now, then long-term goals and plans for the future.

To touch on social support, we are social creatures who adapt to our social group to meet survival, love, and belonging needs.  When people identify with a group, the group becomes part of the self (Mackie et al. 2000; Smith & Mackie, 2010).  Unfortunately, if our social group includes negative influences we are much more likely to adapt to, be accepting of, and eventually take on those negative thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. Positive change means shifting our social structure to meet our love and belonging needs on the road to better choices.  That begins with finding peers who are committed to doing better or are already there.

Where Did That Attitude Come From?

By Leah B. Mazzola

Attitude Formation

Today, the term attitude is often used with a negative tone, especially as it relates to teens or young people.  I am probably safe to say the majority of the population does not feel the need to conduct in-depth study on the concept, its origins, or purpose to know “little Joe just gave me an attitude” and to feel “that child needs to check his attitude.”  A rudimentary knowledge of the word is likely sufficient to serve me through life unless, of course, I have an interest in successfully changing unhelpful and detrimental attitudes.  In that case, any hope to change an attitude requires investigation into the what, why, and how of attitude formation and attitude change.  Fortunately, thanks to social psychologists, anyone interested in an informed approach to attitudes has a plethora of resources available for layman’s study on the topic. Here’s an overview to save you some of the trouble of digging around yourself.

Social psychologists describe the human tendency for preferences as attitudes.  Attitudes are evaluative judgments in favor or disfavor of an object or entity (Banaji & Heiphetz, 2010). Eagly and Chaiken (1993) described attitude as an unobservable psychological construct manifesting in beliefs, feelings, and behavior.  The formation of attitude occurs from birth onward through direct experience or external influence.  If an infant tastes a new food and dislikes it a new attitude of distaste for this food forms by direct experience for response to the food in the future.  If a parent reacts with fear in the presence of a large dog and tells the child dogs are dangerous an attitude of disfavor or fear forms in the child by influence.  Attitude researchers find cognitive, affective (emotional), and behavioral processes contribute to attitude formation in various ways (Fazio & Olson, 2003).  The following explores a couple ways cognition, affect (emotion), and behavior impact attitude formation, the functions attitudes serve, and the extent to which they affect behavior.

Cognitive, Affective (Emotional), and Behavioral Impacts on Attitude Formation

Cognition

Cognition is an intellectual process of knowing, or the experience of knowing, including all mental processes related to knowing (e.g., perceiving, recognizing, conceiving, and reasoning) (Merriam-Webster, 2013).  Cognition contributes to attitude formation when one comes to believe the attitude object relates to positive or negative attributions or outcomes (Fazio & Olson, 2003).  The cognitive learning and cognitive response models hold persuasion primary in attitude formation (Fazio & Olson, 2003; Greenwald, 1968).  Greenwald (1968) asserted, “the cognitive learning model of persuasion is most reasonable” because an infant is not born with cognition but acquires it by experience and the most obvious source of this cognition is the communications the child is directly exposed to (p. 148).

According to the cognitive learning model, a child forms an attitude toward an object or entity by direct face-to-face communication or various other regular communications the child intercepts such as television or radio.  So, again, attitudes are learned from birth by exposure to the attitudes of caregivers, siblings, other close relatives, media, peers, teachers, etc.  Children share the attitudes of those with which they spend the most time.  You are the company you keep, a relatively simple concept.  Discriminatory attitudes are an example of cognitive learning in attitude formation.  If a parent holds a discriminatory attitude toward a particular race, gender, or culture the parent is highly likely to speak of these ideas regularly with strong conviction around the child.  An attitude of disfavor then easily forms in the child through cognitive learning even though he or she has no direct negative experience with the target group.

Heider (1946, 1958) proposed people change attitudes in an effort to maintain harmony between self and close others.  According to this theory, three elements are involved in cognitive balance; a reference person, another person, and an object (Visser & Cooper, 2003).  When the reference person and the other person agree on an object, there is harmony and cognitive balance.  When the reference person and the other person do not agree on an object, there is disharmony and cognitive imbalance.  Heider (1946, 1958) suggested people change attitudes in an effort to maintain harmony between self and close others, as imbalance is psychologically uncomfortable.

According to this model, an individual receives a persuasive message, evaluates said message, and makes a decision to accept or reject considering relational consequences.  Shared taste in clothing styles in adolescents is an example of cognitive response and cognitive balance. Young people tend to take on the appearance of close peers with regard to clothing, hair, and accessories.  If a young person is new to a school and becomes part of a group of close friends persuasion begins to happen when peers discuss taste in clothing and style.  The new student may alter his or her appearance by way of direct or indirect communication and persuasion by the new group.  The child’s decision to accept the persuasive message stems from an interest in fitting in or ensuring harmony with the new peer group.  You may also be familiar with this phenomenon if you’ve ever experienced your child begin to change his or her attitudes after spending time with a new best friend or new group of friends.

Affect (Emotion)

The affective process contributes to attitude formation when the attitude object evokes positive or negative feelings (e.g., fear, anxiety, joy, excitement) (Fazio & Olson, 2003).  Classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and mere exposure are the primary methods, identified by social psychologists, in which affect or emotion forms attitudes (Fazio & Olson, 2003).  Pavlov’s (1927) classical conditioning refers to the process by which one develops positive or negative attitudes toward a previously neutral entity by associations with a characteristically positive or negative attribute (Banaji & Heiphetz, 2010).  This attitude formation occurs internally with no external response necessary (Fazio & Olson, 2003).  Operant conditioning involves positive or negative outcomes encouraging attitudinal responses evidenced behaviorally (Fazio & Olson, 2003).  Zajonc’s (1968) mere exposure effect occurs when repeated exposure to novel stimuli influences formation of a positive attitude toward the stimuli.

Advertising campaigns use the classical conditioning basis when pairing attractive models with a new product.  Advertisers count on consumers to have a positive response to the attractive model thereby associating the positive response with the previously neutral product.  Reward and punishment are tools for operant conditioning.  A parent may use reward for good behavior in hopes of encouraging this behavior in the future.  The parent may use punishment for bad behavior in hopes of discouraging this behavior in the future.  Operant conditioning has occurred if the child begins to associate the negative outcomes and emotions with the bad behavior and in turn avoids the behavior in the future.  A child exposed to a new dresser in his or her room may initially have no preference for or against it but develop a positive attitude toward it as time passes with repeated exposure.  This positive regard developed with familiarity of repeated exposure is an example of the mere exposure effect.

Behavior

Behavioral processes contribute to attitude formation through self-perception of experiences (Fazio & Olson, 2003).  One may infer an attitude toward an object through self-perception of past behavior.  Regan and Fazio (1977) found attitudes formed by direct behavioral experience are “more clearly, confidently, and stably maintained” than those formed by indirect means (pg. 28).  Festinger’s (1957) cognitive dissonance theory proposed attitudes are affected by actions and if either is incompatible with the other, discomfort arises.  This discomfort associated with dissonance leads to the person taking action to reduce it by changing the action or attitude for congruency (Visser & Cooper, 2003).

An adopted routine is an example of attitude formed by behavior.  Many people adopt daily routines for any number of reasons.  The routine alone may have no associated preference for the individual other than convenience for the current situation and schedule.  A person may travel the same route to work every morning, stop at the same gas station to fill up the tank when necessary, and grab a cup of coffee at the same stop finding this routine works well.  If the person were to reflect on the routine, a number of reasons may come to mind to support a positive or negative attitude toward it.  If this reflection results in a positive evaluation, the person would likely keep the routine.  If the evaluation is negative the person would likely change the routine or find arguments for it until satisfied to minimize the dissonance.

Another likely familiar example of this phenomenon is in an attitude toward a job.  If a person has come to form a negative attitude toward a current job or employer because the job or environment is incongruent with the person’s values, feelings of discomfort and unhappiness in the role would arise.  The solution to address the dissonance is changing his or her attitude toward the job to make it tolerable or finding a new job that fit better with his or her values.

Attitude Functions

According to functionalists, all phenomena in human psychological processing serve adaptive functions (Fazio & Olson, 2003).  Katz (1960) proposed attitudes serve functions for “adjustment, ego defense, value expression, and knowledge” (pg. 163).  Value-expressive attitudes serve to affirm one’s identity solidifying beliefs about self through expression (Fazio & Olson, 2003; Katz, 1960).  This value-expression also helps to connect people with like-minded others for supportive relationships.  The knowledge function helps one to understand, make sense of, and navigate his or her world (Fazio & Olson, 2003; Katz, 1960).  The ego-defensive function serving to protect is aroused by threats to self-concept (Katz, 1960).  Each of these      functions are vital to one’s adjustment and adaptive thriving in a social world.

Impact of Attitudes on Behavior

Attitudes often predict behavior but not always.  Early theory assumed attitudes predicted behavior however; empirical data showing low attitude-behavior correlations falsified this assumption (Fazio & Olson, 2003).  These findings raised questions regarding the influence of the person and situation on behavior (Fazio & Olson, 2003).  Guagnano, Stern, and Dietz (1995) discussed the ways internal factors (e.g., attitudes, beliefs, or intentions) and external factors or conditions (e.g., social environment or economic status) interact to influence behavior.  Guagnano et al. (1995) asserted the attitude theories in the psychology literature failed to appreciate the influence of internal and external variables in behavioral influence.  Evidence does suggest both internal and external factors influence behavior.  Fishbein and Ajzen’s (1975) theory of reasoned action considers internal and external factors; attitude toward the behavior and social norms.  According to Fishbein and Ajzen, positive or negative values toward the behavior and subjective norms influence the likelihood of the behavior (Fazio & Olson, 2003).

 Conclusion

Attitudes serve a distinctive purpose in human psychological functioning allowing people to refer to known preferences while interacting with the environment.  These preferences offer reflexive and responsive defaults for behavior when a quick evaluation is necessary and can change as needed.  The above review of various contributors to attitude formation highlights the influence of persuasion, self-perception, and direct experience.  Evidence supports attitudes serve an adaptive function and influence behavior when appropriate for the person and the situation.  So, the important take away here is that attitudes can change and, due to the impact of social learning in attitude formation it is imperative that we recognize and challenge our attitudes.  Have you ever stopped to consider whether your attitudes were formed consciously and intentionally, supported by evidence obtained through your own open investigation?  Or, were they simply learned from those around you indirectly, who may or may not have formed their own attitudes intentionally?  Is it possible that your attitudes are harbored unconsciously like a parasite affecting your perceptions, interactions, and beliefs?  Maybe it’s time to challenge each of us to honest self-exploration.  Intentional attitudes, beliefs, and informed opinions make all the difference in effective interaction with our social world.

Why What You Think of You Matters More Than What They Think of You

by Leah B. Mazzola

Self-concept is what I think of me, who I believe I am. Numerous factors contribute to our self-concept development including, self-perception of our own behavior, introspection, appraisals offered by others, and social comparison.  Self-concept directly effects self-esteem, self-understanding, and self-worth (Fiske, 2012).  If you are unsure of your self-concept, take a few moments to write out “I am __________” 20 times.  Fill in the blank with the various descriptive terms that come to mind.  Review your list.  How many of these entries would you consider strengths?  How many would you consider areas for growth?  Hold that thought.

This self-concept, self-esteem, self-worth interplay can be very healthy or not so healthy.  What you think of you matters more than what someone else thinks of you because you are with you always.  You can walk away from or choose not to associate with another person who believes bad things about you.  You cannot however, simply escape yourself.  Social psychologists, Crisp and Turner (2010), review six theories that explain the maintenance and management of self-concept once developed.  Understanding self-concept in this way offers insight into healthy ways to manage this sense of self.  Of the six theories those for discussion here include, self-discrepancy theory, social comparison theory, and social identity theory.

Self-Concept Maintenance Theories Overview

All self-concept maintenance theories share in the basic view that self-concept and subsequent behavior depends on largely on how self is compared to a specific comparison target (Crisp & Turner, 2010).  These further split into three types of comparative theories with each focusing on a different comparison target: self-comparison, individual comparison, and group comparison (Crisp & Turner, 2010).  Self-comparison theory compares self to self-perceptions of ideal self, individual comparison compares self to others, and group comparison compares self to other groups.  The following reviews one maintenance theory from each target category. Take time to consider an example of each in your own life as you read along.

Self-Discrepancy, Social Comparison, and Social Identity Theories

Self-Discrepancy Theory

Fiske (2012) summarized self-discrepancy theory as linking the self-concept with “rich, specific emotions, such as sadness, fear, anger, or happiness,” and to what people approach and avoid (pg. 208).  Within self-discrepancy theory are self-guides or standards regulating behavior including the “actual self,” the “ought self,” and the “ideal self” (Bizman & Yinon, 2004; Fiske, 2012).  The actual self refers to the person, as they are now (Fiske, 2012).  The ought self refers to the person as they believe they should be, based on social comparisons, or who others in their lives tell them they should be or feel they should be (Bizman & Yinon, 2004; Fiske, 2012; Higgins, Klein, & Strauman, 1985).  The ideal self refers to the person the individual wants to be or to the person someone else wants them to be (Bizmon & Yinon, 2004; Fiske, 2012).  The ought self relates to responsibilities and moral obligations while the ideal self relates to desires, wishes, and aspirations (Fiske, 2012).

The ought self elicits prevention or avoidance behavior of bad consequences while the ideal self elicits promoting or approaching behavior for positive consequences.  Each discrepancy, actual-ought or actual-ideal, is specifically linked to a type of emotional distress (Bizman & Yinon, 2004).  An actual-ought discrepancy, a failure to perform or meet obligations, facilitates agitation-related emotions (e.g., worry, nervousness, or anxiety) (Bizmon & Yinon, 2004; Fiske, 2012; Higgins, et al., 1985).  An actual-ideal discrepancy, not achieving ideals or obtaining related gain, facilitates dejection-related emotions (e.g., disappointment, sadness, depression, or low self-esteem) (Bizmon & Yinon, 2004; Fiske, 2012; Higgins, et al., 1985).

Can you think of an actual-ought discrepancy in your own life?  Is there a you that you should be according to others?  Is there a you that you believe you should be? Write this down. What feelings come up when you compare the ought self to the actual self?  Are these feelings helpful or unhelpful?  How?  Why?

What about an actual-ideal discrepancy?  Is there a you that you want to be, strive to be, or others want you to be?  Write this down.  Do you believe you are on track to be this ideal you?  What feelings come up when you think of yourself as on track or not on track to be this ideal you? Are these feelings helpful or unhelpful?  How? Why?

Social Comparison Theory

Kenrick, et al., (2010) define social comparison as “the process through which people come to know themselves by comparing their abilities, attitudes, and beliefs to those of others” (pg. 50).  Crisp and Turner (2010) described the most distinct aspect of social comparison theory is the argument that “beliefs, feelings, and behaviors are subjective” and “simply the product of our own ruminations” (pg. 15). These social comparisons may be upward (e.g., comparing to someone believed better than self) or downward (e.g., comparing to someone believed to be worse than self). Downward comparison tends to help us feel better about self while upward comparison tends to make us feel worse.  (Bogart, Benotsch, & Pavlovic., 2004).

Can you think of a time when you have, or know anyone who has, brought up someone else’s wrongdoing when facing negative feedback?  For instance, a child who is being corrected for inappropriate behavior responding with, “What about John?  He does it all the time.”  This is an attempt to defend self-concept by downward comparison.  If someone else does this too or more often than me it must not be that bad or I must not be that bad a person.  This downward comparison is a protective mechanism in the face of the negative feelings that ensue about self when confronted with negative feedback.

Social Identity Theory

Social identity theory emphasizes the importance of social groups and the individual’s identity as a member of a group (Fiske, Gilbert, & Lindzey, 2010; Noel, 2012). These groups may share any number of characteristics (e.g., culture, interests, beliefs, appearance, etc.).  Individual knowledge of identification with a group may stem from conditioning from birth (e.g., culture or status), or formed through life pursuits and experience (e.g., academic or professional).  Social identity may lead to ingroup bias where members of the group begin to favor their own members over those of outgroups (Fiske, et al., 2010).  Social identity may serve to protect the individual from bias, prejudice, or stereotyping from outgroups yet may also serve to inflame aggression between groups (Fiske, et al., 2010).

Discussion

Self-concept is a tool come by honestly through experience and subjective interpretation.  The key to healthy use of self-concept is flexibility.  Whether your list of  “I am” descriptors was heavy on strengths, areas for growth, or split down the middle, it’s over-attachment to the self-concept that becomes an obstacle, not positive or negative appraisals in and of themselves.  A positive self-concept can even get in the way if one is unwilling to consider feedback or constructive criticism that threatens this positive self-concept.  For instance, an individual believes he or she has strong people skills yet, peers see this person as overly critical of others.  The valence lies in how this person responds when advised of the overly critical behavior.  If this person is unwilling to consider an issue with being overly critical of others that is not in line with self-appraised strong people skills, the strong, self-concept is now an obstacle to growth.  On the other hand, over attachment to a negative sense of self contributes to negative or defeating emotions and low motivation to grow.  The related discussion of negative self-concept is enough to warrant a dedicated article so I will refrain from further discussion here for the sake of closing.

To conclude, self-concept, self-esteem, and self-worth have major implications to our well-being, interaction with others, and environment.  Because these processes develop implicitly (without conscious awareness) over a lifetime of interaction and experience it is important that we take the time to assess ours, consider origins, and related motivations.  To live with intention and self-direction we must understand and assess our auto-pilot processes, adjusting, repairing, building upon, or letting go where warranted; honing, growing, and empowering to flourish in all that we do.

Young, Single Moms: Empirical Considerations for Empowering Interventions

By Leah B. Mazzola

As a program designed specifically considering the needs of at-risk and high-risk young people, understanding the challenges facing young, single moms is imperative to our work.  Tailoring empowering programs for this or any audience requires base knowledge of the literature for relevant findings to guide intervention.  Fair warning, the following literature review is a scholarly read however, it offers a peek inside support for an empowerment model for our work with high-risk, young single mothers.  That’s how we roll. Nothing without science. Knowing the risks and challenges allows us to collaborate effectively with our young people to equip them to persevere and achieve despite the obstacles.  As an aside, the author was a single mother from age 19-26 and experienced these challenges first-hand.  The statistics say overcoming and thriving as a single mother and raising a thriving child in a single mother household is difficult, not impossible. We thrive through challenge and equip our young people to do the same.

The Numbers

Studies across disciplines show single moms face a greater number of chronic, severe, and long-term stressors than partnered peers (Broussard, Joseph, & Thompson, 2012; Heath & Orthner, 1999; McLanahan, 1983; McLanahan, 1984; Turner, 2007).  Challenging stressors include individual and social factors such as worry, insecurity, financial strain, discrimination, stigmatization, and child-related limitations on education and employment (Broussard et al. 2012; D’Ercole, 1988; Turner, 2007).  According to a recent US Census Bureau (2011a) report, 46.9% of single mother households with children under 18 live in poverty in contrast to 28.2% of single father households, and 11.6% of married-couple families.  This places single mothers at four times more likely to live in poverty than married-couples and almost twice as likely as male counterparts.

According the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCLS) (2014), teen pregnancy rates in the United States for ages 15 to 19 are the highest in the industrialized world, two-thirds of young, single mothers are poor, only 40% of teen moms finish high school, and less than 2% of those bearing children before 18 finish college before 30.  A thorough search of the literature and web returns hundreds of articles and studies evidencing these and other consequences of single motherhood with an onslaught of prevention resources.  However, a search for mediating strategies to improve outcomes for existing single mothers who currently make up 41% of all births in the United States returns dismal results (CDC, 2013).  Single parent families are a reality of today’s society and difficulties facing single mother households specifically, warrants empirical study into contributors, effective coping, and mediating strategies to improve outcomes for a large population of effected mothers and children.

Background

The current literature demonstrates perceived self-efficacy (Brody, Flor, & Gibson, 1999; Jackson & Huang, 2000; Jackson & Scheines, 2005), healthy coping (Broussard, Joseph, & Thompson, 2012; D’Ercole, 1988; Heath & Orthner, 1999), problem-solving strategies (Samuels-Dennis, 2007), perceived social support (Ashton & & Fuehrer, 1993; Cakir, 2010; D’Ercole, 1998; Heath & Orthner, 1999), employment (Ali & Avison, 1997; Gyamfi, Boorks-Gunn, & Jackson, 2001; Samuels-Dennis, 2007), and workplace support (Parker, 1993) do mediate single mother’s distress however, low-income and lack of employment severely increase likelihood of psychological distress (Samuels-Dennis, 2007).  Samuels-Dennis (2007) found “67% of employed single mothers on social assistance, compared with 14.6% of employed single mothers not on social assistance, reported severe depressive symptoms” (pg. 500).  These findings demonstrate the importance of employment status and socioeconomic status for single mothers and children, however, with 46.9% of single mother households living in poverty, improving employment opportunities and income potential for single mothers is clearly unresolved (USCB, 2011a).

Considering the numerous obstacles to single mother’s employment, value, and sense of efficacy in the workforce brings several concepts to the forefront.  Single mothers face various stereotypes relating to poverty, unemployment, and lack of education, unfair stigma, and truly limited flexibility around work and school demands as they often bear all responsibility for childcare and support.  Each of these obstacles are mediated, reinforced, or exacerbated by internal and external forces.  A literature review for potential contributors and mediators to improve outcomes for young, single mothers led to the following primary concepts: femininity, stereotype threat, self-efficacy, attribution of responsibility for solution, and social support.  The following overview addresses relevant historical and current research in these areas and the potential importance of each to single mother outcomes.

Femininity

 An influx of studies beginning with the feminist movement show sex-role identification (i.e. masculine, feminine, or androgynous) significantly affects individual self-concept, psychological adjustment, coping, and behavior (Bem, 1974; 1975; Blanchard-Fields, Sulsky, & Robinson-Whelen, 1991; Brems & Johnson, 1988; Consentino & Heilbrun, 1964; Gall, 1969; Gray, 1957; Mitchell, 1987; Nezu & Nezu, 1987; Washburn-Ormachea, Hillman, & Sawilowsky, 2004).  The highly popular Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI) (1974) highlights twenty stereotypical masculine traits (e.g. ambitious, self-reliant, independent, assertive) as indicating level of masculinity and twenty stereotypical feminine traits (e.g. affectionate, gentle, understanding, sensitive to the needs of others) as indicating level of femininity.  Numerous early studies employing this or similar scales showed high femininity in females correlated with high anxiety, low self-esteem, low social acceptance, and greater susceptibility to social pressure (Bem, 1975, pg. 635, Consentino & Heilbron, 1964; Gall, 1969; Gray, 1957).

Bem (1975) tested the behavioral consequences of sex typing and found subjects identifying as androgynous (i.e. identifying equally with masculine and feminine characteristics) were more adaptable across situations, calling for sex typed responses, engaging in the most appropriate behavior for the scenario regardless of the stereotyped expectation of such behavior.  Bem (1975) also found highly feminine females failed to perform well in either scenario (i.e. masculine or feminine directed) potentially demonstrating greater susceptibility to anxiety and social pressure.

Mitchell (1987) found a significant relationship between “femininity and low internal attribution of responsibility for problem-solving” (pg. 151).  Nezu and Nezu (1987) found subjects high in masculinity (regardless of sex) rated more effective problem-solving ability, were more active than avoiding in stressful situations, and more problem-focused versus emotion-focused in stressful situations.  Brems and Johnson (1988) found subjects high in femininity were more likely to turn against self, whereas subjects high in masculinity were more likely to present positive self-appraisal and greater confidence in problem-solving ability.

Although the sex role research discussed above has since shifted to a gender focus in recent decades, the trends remain the same.  More recent studies show young females are twice as likely as male peers to attempt suicide (Beautrais, 2002), women have higher rates of depression than men (Grigoriadis & Robinson, 2007), girls continue to express lower confidence in abilities than boys (Parajes, 2002), women continue to earn considerably less than men (Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 2012), women hold the majority of low-wage jobs (Kim, 2000), women continue to perceive themselves as less likely to achieve career goals than men (Von Hippel, Issa, Ma, & Stokes, 2011), and women remain dramatically underrepresented in senior level leadership roles (Ely, Ibarra, & Kolb, 2011).  The importance of these gender differences follows.

Self-Efficacy and Attribution of Responsibility

Early studies in self-efficacy demonstrate people who believe they can affect change in their own outcomes are more likely to initiate coping behaviors and persist in the face of challenge (Bandura, 1982; Dweck, 1975; Dweck & Reppucci, 1973; Klein, Fencil-Morse, & Seligman, 1976).  Recall Pajares’ (2002) finding that girls continue to show lower confidence in abilities than boys.  Zelden, Britner, and Pajares (2007) interviewed a small group of successful men and women in STEM careers and found women’s sense of self-efficacy was derivative of social persuasion and vicarious experience and men’s from personal mastery.  These results allude to a direct need to adjust society’s perception of single mothers and to empower single mothers to succeed.  Dweck and Reppucci (1973) found persistence and performance from self-efficacy directly related to individual’s attribution of responsibility to self and attributions of success or failure to effort over ability.  Recall Mitchell’s (1987) finding of femininity’s correlation with low attribution of responsibility to self for solution, as “femininity is traditionally associated with greater dependence” (pg. 155).

Brickman et al. (1982) further developed these findings separating attribution of responsibility into two categories, responsibility for the problem and responsibility for the solution.  From this separation came four models of helping and coping based on the degree to which people are perceived responsible for causing their own problems and providing their own solutions.  Through the medical model, potential helpers perceive victims as not responsible for problems or solutions (Brickman et al., 1982).  The potential helper believes the victim is ill and in need of treatment (Brickman et al., 1982).  Through the moral model, the potential helper perceives the victim as responsible for problems and solutions (Brickman et al., 1982).  The potential helper believes the victim simply needs the proper motivation to find solutions (Brickman et al., 1982).  Through the compensatory model, the potential helper perceives the victim as not responsible for the problem yet responsible for the solution (Brickman et al., 1982).  The potential helper perceives the victim as needing empowerment (Brickman et al, 1982).  Through the enlightenment model, the potential helper perceives the victim as responsible for the problem but incapable or unwilling to provide solutions (Brickman et al. 1982).  The potential helper perceives the victim to need discipline (Brickman et al., 1982).  Brickman et al. (1982) found those attributing responsibility for the solution to the actor promoted self-efficacy and positive, long-term change but reduced initiative for outside helpers to assist.  In contrast, models undermining the actor’s ability to find their own solutions led to short-term change dependent on salience of helpers and return to problem behavior when helpers were no longer present (Brickman et al. 1982).

Although Mitchell (1975) found femininity correlates with low attribution of responsibility for solution associated with promoting self-efficacy, Dweck (1975) demonstrated the effectiveness of attribution retraining to improve motivation and performance.  Thus, assessing single mother’s sense of self-efficacy and attribution of problem cause and solution are relevant to an empowerment model promoting improved outcomes.

Stereotype Threat

Steele and Aronson (1995) introduced the term stereotype threat to describe a situation in which one feels at risk of confirming a widely known negative stereotype about one’s group.  Numerous studies have since tested the phenomenon and offer rich empirical support for impaired performance in stereotype relevant contexts regardless of individual ability, along with varying long-term psychological and physiological consequences.  These consequences include decreased motivation, aspiration abandonment, domain dis-identification, reduced sense of self-efficacy, higher anxiety, and blood pressure (Aronson & Inzlicht, 2004; Ben-Zeev, Fein, & Inzlicht, 2003; Blascovich, Spencer, Quinn, & Steele, 2001; Croizet et al. 2004; Davies, Spencer, & Steele, 2005; Vick, Serry, Blascovich, & Weisbuch, 2008; Woodcock, Hernandez, Estrada, & Schultz, 2012).

Researchers seeking effective intervention strategies to curb stereotype threat found role models offer an effective approach for group-as-target threat scenarios and affirmations offer an effective strategy for self-as-target threats (Bowen, Wegmann, & Webber, 2013; Shapiro, Williams, & Hambarchyan, 2013).  Associating with like others also serves as a buffer to such intergroup bias (Dovidio & Gaertner, 2010).  These interventions seem to offer some insight into methods of fostering positive coping, career, and academic progression for single mothers however, a thorough search of the stereotype threat literature did not reveal any studies investigating the role of stereotype threat in single mothers seeking and securing viable employment.

Social Support

Numerous findings indicate level of social support is a predictor of positive and negative coping strategies and outcomes across age and culture (Auerbach, Bigda-Peyton, Eberhard, Webb, & Ho, 2011; Broussard et al., 2012; Cakir, 2010; Chao, 2012; Cheng & Chan, 2007; D’Ercole, 1988; Green, DeCourville, & Sadava, 2012; Niyonsenga et al. 2012; Respler-Herman, Mowder, Yasik, & Shamah, 2012; Taylor et al. 2000).  Landman-Peeters et al. (2011) found social support holds more relevance for coping in females than males serving as a buffer for depressive symptoms.  This finding supports prior studies demonstrating females turn to social relationships for emotional support in stressful situations more than males with a “tend-and-befriend” versus “fight-or-flight” response (Ashton & Fuehrer, 1993; Landman-Peeters et al. 2011; Taylor et al. 2000).  Consequently, seeking social support is particularly relevant to single mothers as they cope with stressors unique to their situation.

Discussion

So how do we help? Recall attribution of responsibility to the actor for the problem and solution (you got yourself into it, you can get yourself out) promotes individual self-efficacy, but diminishes the likelihood for outside parties to assist.  We prepare our young, single moms to succeed understanding many will judge them and have no interest in helping them.  We focus first on empowering young single moms through self-efficacy development, self-determination, and self-sufficiency.  We work to build confidence in their ability to achieve, provide, and thrive as the head of their family.  We direct focus toward finding solutions that fit them, learning to use what they have where they are to begin moving to where they want to be.  We instill the importance of building a network of positive social support for the climb to create thriving futures for themselves and the children depending on them.  Again, we know difficult doesn’t mean impossible, but everyone needs someone to inspire and encourage them through the journey.  We’re happy to do so to help mediate outcomes for a large population of young, single moms and children.