Abstract: Promoting Equity in Adolescent Wellbeing Among Youth in Alternative Family Structures: Why Context Matters (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Promoting Equity in Adolescent Wellbeing Among Youth in Alternative Family Structures: Why Context Matters

Friday, January 13, 2023
Cave Creek, 3rd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Helen Spencer, MSW, Research Assistant, University of Houston, Houston, TX
Sharon Borja, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, University of Houston, Houston, TX
J. Mark Eddy, PhD, Professor, University of Texas at Austin, Austin
Background: Youth in marginalized families often face cascading threats to their wellbeing through economic uncertainties, increased caregiver stress, and social exclusion. The COVID-19 pandemic amplified these challenges, especially for youth in alternative family structures (stepfamilies, grandfamilies, kinship families) and their caregivers who had to navigate complex caregiving responsibilities and relationships. Despite evidence regarding the role of caregiver support, economic resources, and social supports (among others) in promoting youth wellbeing, less is known regarding protective factors in key ecological contexts (schools and neighborhoods) within alternative family structures. Further less understood are the specific associations between these protective factors and youth wellbeing outcomes of engagement, perseverance, optimism, connectedness, and happiness (EPOCH). To address these gaps, we utilized Ungar’s (2012; 2017) resilience theory to examine whether connectedness at school, community involvement, and neighborhood collective efficacy are associated with EPOCH of youth in alternative family structures.

Methods: We used six waves of the Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study with a racially diverse and gender-balanced sample. Only youth interviewed in wave 6 (age 15) and who grew up in an alternative family structure from age 1 to 9 were included in the analysis (n=1,204). We estimated each of the hypothesized associations between school, neighborhood, and community factors and youth EPOCH using a Generalized Linear Model, with gender, race, and economic hardship as covariates. Connectedness at school included self-rated inclusiveness, closeness, happiness, and safety at school. Neighborhood collective efficacy included informal social control and levels of cohesion and trust. Community involvement measured volunteer, extracurricular, and group activities. Youth outcomes were based on the EPOCH Measure of Adolescent Wellbeing (Kern, Benson, Steinberg, & Steinberg, 2014), which included 4 items per indicator.

Results: All three ecological contexts emerged as significant predictors of EPOCH. Among the three contexts measured, school connectedness was the strongest predictor of perseverance (B=.138, SE=.023), optimism (B=.181, SE=.024), connectedness (B=.219, SE=.017), and happiness (B=1.170, SE=.088). Neighborhood collective efficacy was associated with perseverance (B=.006, SE=.003), optimism (B=.007, SE=.003), connectedness (B=.008, SE=.002), and happiness (B=.020, SE=.010). Community involvement was associated with engagement (B=.092, SE=.023), perseverance (B=.056, SE=.017), optimism (B=.052, SE=.017), and happiness (B=.129, SE=.063). Race and economic hardship were not significant. Gender was associated only with engagement and happiness.

Discussion/Implications: Findings demonstrate the importance of ecological contexts in the adaptive process of adolescents in alternative family structures. The significance of multilevel factors in promoting EPOCH indicate connectedness at school, neighborhood efficacy, and community involvement could be promising targets of interventions to advance wellbeing equity among youth in alternative family structures. As major shifts in family formation occur during a time of increased concern surrounding adolescent mental health, results from our study emphasize that “it takes a village” to raise healthy youth. Investing in the contextual support systems of adolescents in alternative family structures will be key, especially as the U.S. continues to experience pandemic-related inequities.