BEHAVIORAL ATTITUDES AND DISTRESS IN ADOLESCENTS: RELATIONSHIP TO AGE AND GENDER
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February 28, 2013
Vadim Rotenberg, Sergey Kutsay , Alexander Venger
Homeostasis, 39, 1998, No 1-2 57
Behavioral attitudes and distress in adolescents: relationship to age and gender - V. Rotenberg, S. Kutsay, A. Venger - Homeostasis 39, 1-2, 1998 - Behavioral attitudes and the level of psychological distress have been estimated by means of the test BASE (Behavioral Attitudes and Search Evaluation) and the Talbieh Brief Distress Inventory on 143 Russian-speaking adolescents from the families of the new immigrants. The relationships between behavioral attitudes and distress level have been analyzed separately for both genders, and for younger (10-12 years old) and older (13-15 years old) adolescents.
Results: 1. The general level of distress is higher in older than in younger adolescents. 2. The tendency to search activity is higher while the tendency to chaotic behavior is lower in the older group. 3. The tendency to chaotic behavior is higher in boys than in girls. 4. In the younger group tendencies to stereotyped behavior and search activity correspond to the low level of distress. 5. In the older group only the tendency to search activity corresponds to the low level of distress. Conclusion: in adolescents search activity increases with age and has a positive influence on the psychological state.
Key words: behavior; distress; search activity; age; gender; adolescents.
Concept of coping is central in the modern stress theory. According to this concept, subject's overt and covert behavior in front of stressful life events determine the stress outcome in the domain of the psychological and somatic health. However, this concept is ambiguous and contains some contradictions. Different authors proposed different lists of coping mechanisms (see Folkman and Lazarus, 1988) and it is still not known whether some of them have definite advantages in comparison to other, and even whether they are qualitatively different.
For instance, there is a discussion in the literature whether
avoidance is a separate coping mechanism or a part of emotional
regulation, and whether the reappraisal of the problem is a part of
the more general coping mechanism like approach to the problem
(Ferguson & Cox, 1997). Moreover, there are some doubts whether
different coping mechanisms are equal in their influence on the
psychological state. Thus, some lists of coping mechanisms include
escapism (smoking, drinking) although it is also a self-destructive
behavior (Ferguson & Cox, 1997; De Ridder, 1997). Avoidance
(including also passive avoidance) which allows the individual to
ignore the existence of the stressful situation is considered by
some authors (Ferguson & Cox, 1997) as a typical coping
mechanism while according to Gal & Lazarus (1975) the essence
of coping is to be engaged in activity, and to be active - rather
than to be passive - is preferable for most individuals in
stressful situations. However, Gal and Lazarus are speaking only
about overt motor activity that does not include the reappraisal of
the situation as well as other cognitive mechanisms. On the other
hand, according to Epstein and Meier (1979) study of coping should
be limited to cognitive mechanisms. The investigations of Manyande
et al.(1979) confirmed the important role of cognitive mechanisms
in coping showing that preoperative rehearsal of active coping
imagery, without any overt activity influences hormonal responses
to the surgery.
The goal of the present study was to investigate the difference in behavioral attitudes according to the age and gender as well as the relationships between different behavioral attitudes and the level of psychological distress among socially adjusted Russian-speaking adolescent new immigrants.
We hypothesized that even in this selected group without obvious
adjustment disorders subjects with the relatively higher level of
distress would be characterized by the lower level of search
activity and by the increased level of renunciation of search or
chaotic (panicky) behavior, in comparison to subjects with the low
level of distress.
Subjects were 151 Russian-speaking adolescents of immigrant families from the former USSR coming to Israel (86 boys and 65 girls), aged 10-15. Their average age was 11,8 years (SD=1,3). Mean duration of residence in Israel was 5,7 years (SD=1,6). All adolescents studied at Israeli State schools and beside that they took lessons in private evening school ,,MOFET" in Jerusalem, in order to improve their knowledge in mathematics and foreign languages. The lessons in this school are carried out twice a week for four hours and conducted in Russian (native language of students' families). These students were, therefore, highly motivated for education and did not display any obvious social adjustment disorders.
Adolescent participants were asked to complete Behavioral Attitudes and Search Evaluation test (BASE) and the Talbieh Brief Distress Inventory (TBDI). The test BASE is developed using principles of both projective test and personality questionnaire (Venger et al., 1996). It includes descriptions of 16 open situations with four possible reactions on each of them. The tested subject has to choose two reactions on each situation: the most appropriate from his/her point of view and the least appropriate. The preferences of the subject provide an opportunity for quantitative measurement of each of above behavioral attitudes: 1) search activity; 2) stereotyped behavior; 3) chaotic (panicky) behavior; 4) renunciation of search (passive behavior). The total score on each of four scales can be from -16 (if the corresponding answer is negatively chosen in all 16 situation) to +16 (if the answer is positively chosen in all 16 situation). The test situations are indefinite enough, so no one of the four reactions is more advantageous than others, i.e., all of them look equally acceptable both ethically and pragmatically. That could guarantee that the reactions chosen by a tested subject reflect his/her tendency to one or another type of behavior rather than ethical preferences, social norms, or experience in problem-solving activity. To illustrate the general principle an example is presented.
A group of hikers went to a cavern unfamiliar to them. Just as they
were inside the falling rocks blocked the entrance. While
discussing the situation, the following actions are suggested:
In this situation, the answer A corresponds to search orientation because it suggests activity with unpredictable outcome, and fixation of all intermediate results (marking the way by stones). The answer B indicates chaotic tendency because it denies fixation of the results. The answer C reflects passive attitude because it does not suggest any type of activity. The answer D" shows tendency to stereotyped behavior: high level of activity without investigation of obstacles.
Test BASE was constructed by using the following procedure. The initial list of situations was presented to the group of Russian-speaking adolescents. The data of each situation were correlated to the total test score. This statistical method reveals those questions that most closely correspond to the general tendency revealed by the test. The relevant situations from the first version of the list were included into the final version. All other situations were either changed or substituted and then the entire experimental statistical procedure was repeated on another group of subjects. The Russian version of the BASE was validated on 165 Russian-speaking adolescents. We have used the following indices of BASE scale: SA (tendency to search activity), St (tendency to stereotyped behavior), Act (combination of SA and St as an tendency to purposeful behavior), Ch (tendency to chaotic behavior), and P (tendency to passive behavior - renunciation of search).
The TBDI is a self-reporting questionnaire for the measurement of psychological distress among immigrants. It was developed on a convenient sample of 966 Russian Jews immigrating recently from the former USSR to Israel (Ritsner et al., 1995). Its 24 items were derived from two well-known instruments -the Brief Symptom Inventory (Derogatis & Spencer, 1982) and PERI Demoralization Scale (Dohrenwendt et al., 1986), and ranged on a 5-point Likert-type scale from 0 ('not at all') to 4 ('extremely'). The TBDI total score and the scores of the six symptoms scale: obsessiveness (Obss), sensitiveness (Snst), depression (Dprs), anxiety (Anxt), hostility (Hstl) and paranoid ideation (Prnd) range from 0 to 96. The Russian version of TBDI was validated on 200 Russian-speaking adolescents (Ritsner et al., 1995) and used in Israel for measuring a level of the psychological distress among Russian-speaking immigrants (Ponizovsky & Perl, 1997).
The questionnaire TBDI and test BASE were administered to
adolescents at ,,MOFET" school and took, in average, 30-40 minutes
to complete. Instructions were administered in Russian. For the
test BASE the following general instruction was used: ,,You are
given descriptions of some situations. Participants in these
situations discuss different variants of behavior. Please read and
compare all the opinions concerning each situation. Select the
opinion of your own choice and mark it by the sign "+. If none of
them is totally convenient, or you think that two of them are suitable, mark the
best one. Then mark the worst variant by the sign "-. Be sure to
mark both variants ("+ and "-) for each situation. There are no
correct and incorrect answers in this questionnaire. Each person
prefers a variant in agreement with his/her character. Try to
follow your feelings as if you are one of the participants in a
The data were processed using the program Microsoft Excel. The
significance of gender and age differences was determined using the
t-criterion. Estimation of the relationships between behavioral
tendencies and distress scale was based on the following procedure.
Each analyzed group was divided into three subgroups of
approximately equal size: with high, average and low BASE score of
the pertinent parameter. Afterwards the upper and the lower
subgroups were compared according to the TBDI data by using the
t-criterion; the intermediate subgroup was eliminated from the
The final experimental sample included 143 students of two age groups: younger (10 - 12 years) and older (13 -15 years). The Table 1 presents the structure of the sample . Search activity was the favored type of behavior. It prevailed in most (93) of the adolescents; stereotyped behavior dominated in 22 subjects; 24 adolescents demonstrated the relative prevalence of chaotic behavior, and only 4 subjects were characterized by the domination of passive behavior.
Table 1. The composition of the experimental sample: B - boys, G -
girls, BG - boys and girls together,
I - younger group, II - older group
Differences in BASE and TBDI data according to the age and gender are presented in Table 2. Index I/II displays the significance of the differences between the younger and older groups, index B/G - between boys and girls. The significance at the level of p<0.05 is marked by the sign *, p<0.01 - **, p<0.001 - ***.
Girls were less disposed than boys to chaotic behavior and more disposed to passivity (p<0.05); these differences were more significant in the younger group. Girls of the older group were less disposed than boys to search activity (p<0.01). At the same time, girls surpassed boys in anxiety (p<0.01) and depression (p<0.01), and in the senior group also in sensitivity (p<0.05). In the other parameters (in particular, in the total distress score and the general index of tendency to purposeful behavior) there were no significant differences between boys and girls.
The older group significantly surpassed the younger one in search activity (p<0.01), in purposeful behavior (p<0.05), and in the total score of distress (p<0.05). Search activity was especially prominent in boys (p< 0.001). The total score of distress was higher due to the increased obsessiveness, paranoid ideation and anxiety. The tendency to chaotic behavior in older group was lower, and it was also more prominent in boys
Table 2. The distribution of TBDI and BASE data in adolescents according age and gender: B - boys, G -girls, BG - boys and girls together, I - younger group, II - older group; BASE scale: SA (tendency to search activity), St (tendency to stereotyped behavior), Act (combination of SA and St as an tendency to purposeful behavior), Ch (tendency to chaotic behavior), and P (tendency to passive behavior - renunciation of search); TBDI total score and the scores of the six symptoms scale: obsessiveness (Obss), sensitiveness (Snst), depression (Dprs), anxiety (Anxt), hostility (Hstl) and paranoid ideation (Prnd).
* - pO.05, ** - pO.O1, *** - pO.OO1
Search activity dominated in 80% of older adolescents and in 60% of younger adolescents (p<0.05). Stereotyped behavior dominated in 8% of older adolescents and in 19% of younger adolescents (p<0.05). Chaotic behavior dominates in 6% of older and in 20% of younger adolescents (p<0.05).
Thus, search activity had a tendency to increase with age while in other behavioral tendencies there was a trend to decrease with age. The differences between boys and girls of the same age were considerably smaller than the differences between the two age groups. We have, therefore, analyzed relationships between BASE data and TBDI score separately in different age groups, while the data of boys and girls of the same age were often considered together.
Relationships between the level of distress and behavioral tendencies.
In the younger group, boys and girls showed the similar type of relationships between the BASE data and distress scales (see Table 3). The high score of SA and, especially, St corresponded to the lower level of distress in comparison to the low score of SA and St. The most prominent differences were observed in the subgroups of high (9 or more points) and low (4 or less points) purposeful activity (Act). On all distress scales, except anxiety, the differences between high and low Act were significant at least at the level of 0.05, and on the total score - at the level of 0.001.
Table 3. The TBDI scores in different subgroups of the junior group. For legend see text to table 2.
On the contrary, the high score of Ch (2 points or more) was accompanied by the higher level of distress than the low score (-3 points or less); on three distress scales the differences were significant at the level of 0.05, and on the total score - at the level of 0.01. Passive behavior was related to the distress level in a similar way, but the difference between high and low P was significant only on the scale of obsessiveness.
Subgroups of the younger adolescents with the high scores on Ch and P scale demonstrated significantly higher level of demoralization than subgroups with the high scores on SA and, especially, St and Act scales. In comparison to the high SA, significant differences were observed on the scale of obsessiveness and depression. In comparison to the high St and Act, significant differences were observed on all TBDI scales except of anxiety.
Table 4. The TBDI scores in different subgroups of the senior group. For legend see text to table 2.
In the older group, the patterns of relations were less prominent (Table 4). Only the tendency to search activity was undoubtedly related to the lower level of distress: the differences between the higher (7 points or more) and lower (4 points or less ) SA were significant on the scales of depression ( p<0.02) and sensitivity (p<0.01). On the scale of total score the difference was almost significant (p<0.06).
In girls of the older group, the tendency to stereotyped behavior was relatively favorable: the subgroup with higher St was less obsessive (p<0.05) and less anxious (p=0.06). In boys the same behavioral tendency has unfavorable concomitants: members of the subgroup with the higher St were more hostile (p <0.05). The subgroup with high St demonstrated a higher level of depression than the subgroup with high SA (p<0.05)
The main results of the present investigation are the following:
1. The general level of distress increases between the age of 10-12 and 13-15 years. Some distress scales are higher in girls.
2. At the same period the tendency to search activity increases, while tendency to the chaotic behavior decreases, especially in boys.
3. In the younger group (10 to 12 years) tendencies to search activity and, especially, stereotyped behavior are higher when the level of distress and demoralization is low. The most correct prediction can be made, using the index of the purposeful behavior (the sum of the above two indexes)
4. In the older group (13 to 15 years) only the tendency to search activity is higher in both genders when the level of distress is low. Adolescents highly disposed to stereotyped behavior demonstrate higher level of depression than adolescents highly disposed to search activity. In boys, stereotyped behavior is related to hostility. At the same time, girls with the prominent tendencies to stereotyped behavior are less obsessive and less anxious than girls with the low tendency to this type of behavior.
Thus, the results of the present investigation in general confirm our initial hypothesis: in both younger and older adolescents the low level of distress corresponds to the high scores of search activity. This pattern is especially prominent in the older group where search activity is the only behavioral tendency, which corresponds to the low level of distress both in boys and girls. Older group is faced with the increasing number of social and personal problems related to the complicated relationships with parents and peers, to the sexual problems of growing up, and to the requirements in the process of education. These problems may explain the increased level of distress in the older group, and they require a flexible behavior in order to achieve a successful outcome in the process of coping. So search activity is more relevant in this age than stereotyped behavior.
The life of younger adolescents is more determined by the relatively restricted rules and schedules exerted by parents, and it is quite adaptive to follow these rules in stereotyped way. It may be the reason of the correspondence between the stereotyped behavior and the lowest level of distress in younger adolescents.
The main problem in the interpretation of these data is the problem of causality. The relationship between behavioral tendencies and distress do not allow any statements about causality. Not only behavioral tendency may lead to the development of distress symptoms, but also distress symptoms might be expected to produce passive or chaotic behavior rather than the exploratory search activity. However, if the latter would be the case, it would be reasonable to expect the general decrease of search activity in the older group which is characterized by the increased level of distress, in comparison to the younger group. Actually, search activity is higher in the older group in spite of the increased level of distress. At the same time, inside the older group, the lower level of distress corresponds to the higher level of search activity. From our point of view, it means that the increased distress in older group is caused by the growing pains and does not prevent search activity. In fact, it may have quite the opposite effect: if search activity is high, it prevents the extreme increase of distress. However, it is only a hypothesis which requires a confirmation in the further investigations.
It is important, that both forms of goal-oriented behavior (SA and St) are opposite, according to the distress level, to chaotic and passive behavior. At the same time, older group displays differences between genders. Older girls with the highest stereotyped behavior are characterized by the lowest level of distress, while older boys with high stereotyped behavior are relatively more distressed than boys with the low level of stereotyped behavior. Thus, in older group stereotyped behavior is in general less relevant than in younger group, and it is especially irrelevant in boys; so it is possible to suggest that the latter are more predisposed to search activity. Further investigations on adults will confirm or refute this suggestion.
According to our data, boys, and especially younger boys, are more predisposed to chaotic behavior than girls. This conclusion does not contradict the clinical impression: boys are often more active but their activity is less organized.
However, in the process of a normal growing up the chaotic behavior is displaced by search activity. If our data will be confirmed in further investigations, such dynamics of activity may be used for the estimation of the process of maturing. Our findings that girls surpass boys in the level of anxiety, depression and sensitivity, are in agreement with other findings (Ritsner & Ponizovsky, 1998) that among newcomers women predominate in all distress-related symptoms except hostility and paranoid ideation.
In general, the investigated group is characterized by the domination of search activity. It corresponds to their successful social adjustment: these adolescents are parallelly with their main Hebrew school studying in ,,MOFET" school in order to gain the non-obligatory additional education. In this, they differ from adolescents with adjustment disorders who demonstrated a high level of passive behavior (Venger et al., 1996).
These data confirm our theoretical suggestion, that search activity (whether in overt or in covert behavior) is an essential component of coping.
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