Exposure to community violence during middle adolescence was associated with greater involvement in serious violent behavior during late adolescence. This was true when including both direct victimization and indirect violence exposure (witnessing or hearing about community violence) in the violence exposure composite and when incidents of direct victimization were excluded from the composite. These findings are consistent with other studies of youth showing that both indirect exposure to violence and direct victimization are associated with increases in aggressive and violent behavior (Farrell & Bruce, 1997
; also see Margolin & Gordis, 2000
, for a review).
A growing body of research has examined factors that serve to protect youth from the most serious consequences of exposure to violence (for reviews, see Gorman-Smith & Tolan, 2003
; Ozer, Richards, & Kliewer, 2004
), yet surprisingly little research has examined how individual differences in coping responses to violence may moderate the impact of violence exposure on later behavior. The primary purpose of the present study was to determine whether adolescents’ coping strategies moderated the impact of community violence exposure on violent behavior, such that adaptive coping would help to protect youth from one of the most serious consequences associated with exposure to violence. Consistent with our hypothesis, greater community violence exposure during middle adolescence was associated with greater violent behavior during late adolescence only among those youth who coped poorly with community violence during middle adolescence. These analyses adjusted for levels of violent behavior during middle adolescence. Community violence exposure was not
associated with violent behavior over time among those youth who coped well.
Because coping effectiveness was coded for each violent event adolescents reported and combined across three years, coping effectiveness scores reflected whether an adolescent’s overall approach to coping with violence was adaptive or maladaptive. Adolescents who coped effectively in the present study exhibited an array of strategies likely to result in positive long-term adjustment. For example, adolescents classified as coping effectively sought advice from others, tried to focus on positive aspects of their lives, modified their behavior without confronting others, engaged in positive distracting activities (e.g., sports), prayed, tried to negotiate with others, engaged in activities to enhance their self-esteem, and arranged to live outside of a violent neighborhood. In contrast, adolescents classified as coping ineffectively used substances, argued or fought with others, enjoyed watching others being beaten up, held in their emotions, isolated themselves, told themselves they didn’t care, and tried to forget about what they had experienced.
Some coping responses classified as ineffective included violent behavior, but analyses suggested that the moderating effect of coping effectiveness was not due to the inclusion of some violent responses in the measure of coping effectiveness. All analyses included Time 1 violent behavior as a covariate, meaning that the interaction effect between community violence exposure and coping effectiveness was independent of violent behavior. In addition, coping effectiveness was not associated with violent behavior during middle adolescence and was only weakly associated with violent behavior during late adolescence (i.e., non-significant trend).
The effect of community violence exposure on violent behavior over time was due entirely to the subpopulation of adolescents who were classified as not coping well with violence during middle adolescence. Adolescents classified as engaging in effective coping strategies may have recognized that violent events required coping, responded to events in beneficial ways, and developed long-term solutions. They may also have developed a relatively broad array of responses from which to choose when they later encountered stressful situations. Adaptive coping may thus buffer adolescents from the likelihood that violent behavior becomes a long-term consequence of community violence exposure. Conversely, adolescents who initially coped poorly with violence exposure may have been limited in their development of behavioral responses to stressful situations. Maladaptive coping with community violence exposure may thus promote the long-term adoption of violent behavior as a strategy to negotiate the demands of living.
The sample in the present study was comprised of inner-city African American and Latino adolescent males living in communities characterized by high rates of poverty and crime relative to the surrounding city. Although caution must be used in generalizing study results to other populations, we have no reason to expect that associations between violence exposure, coping effectiveness, and violent behavior would be different among other subgroups of adolescents, particularly in contexts of disadvantage and contexts in which engagement in violent behavior is normative among youth. Community violence affects children and adolescents of all ethnic backgrounds and communities, although relatively few studies have examined general population samples and youth in non-urban settings (Stein et al., 2003
). In one predominantly Caucasian sample of rural youth in grades 3 through 8, 20% of boys reported ever being beaten up, 6% reported being attacked with a knife, and 13% reported having a gun pointed at them or being shot at (Slovak & Singer, 2002
). Violence exposure was associated with symptoms of trauma, consistent with studies of urban youth (e.g., Cooley-Quille et al., 2001
). This suggests that the manner in which youth cope with violence exposure is of importance regardless of ethnic background and geographical setting.
To date, efforts to curb violent behavior among youth have shown progress, although additional work is needed to demonstrate widespread effectiveness (Farrell & Flannery, 2006
). Violence prevention initiatives have attempted to improve environmental structure and support through family (Metropolitan Area Child Study Research Group, 2002
; Tolan, Gorman-Smith, & Henry, 2004
), community (Briggs, 1997
; Huston et al., 2005
; Kling, Liebman, & Katz, 2005
), and school based approaches (Farrell, Meyer, & White, 2001
; Mytton, Diguiseppi, Gough, Taylor, & Logan, 2006
). Findings from the present study suggest that interventions targeting the enhancement of children’s and adolescents’ coping skills may be an effective and practical way of reducing the impact of community violence exposure on adolescent violent behavior. Interventions may be most effective when they occur relatively early in development. One such example is the Coping Power Program (Lochman & Wells, 2004
), a program designed to aid at risk youth in developing a series of strategies including setting goals, becoming aware of feelings and physiological arousal, making coping self-statements, using distraction and relaxation techniques, and developing social problem solving skills. In a large randomized controlled trial, Lochman and Wells (2004)
found that the Coping Power intervention resulted in lower rates of delinquent behavior at a 1-year follow-up.
Coping styles in childhood and adolescence may not only moderate the impact of stressors such as violence exposure, but may also place individuals on a trajectory to cope in more or less adaptive ways throughout life (Compas et al., 2001
). We view the lack of an association between level of community violence exposure and coping skill in the present study as a cause for optimism, in that it supports the idea that youth can thrive despite living within disadvantaged communities, provided they are also given environmental supports to promote resiliency. The coping skills of adolescents that were judged to be effective likely developed as a result of guidance and support provided by caregivers and other community mentors across time. When environmental supports are lacking, health care professionals, schools, and community leaders can partner with adolescents and their families to create conditions ensuring that all youth have the ability to reach their full potential.