Differences between rural and urban youth

Coping with stress

(June 17, 1999, Gazette)

By Karen Shewbridge

Memorial university graduate Frank Elgar says "psychologists do not have all the answers when it comes to school violence." Mr. Elgar has just returned from Denver, Colorado where he presented his research on adolescent stress and coping behaviours.

During his visit, Mr. Elgar visited Littleton and watched the first students return to Columbine High School since the recent shootings. Mr. Elgar says people there are still confused and in mourning and just don't want to talk about it anymore.

However, he is concerned that because of the shootings in Littleton and more recently in Taber, Alberta, people will look to psychologists for answers to questions they cannot answer.

"I'm afraid with all of the media attention and sensationalism surrounding these incidents that a whole area of psychology based on school shootings will arise."

Mr. Elgar believes rather than trying to figure out why these boys did what they did, it would be more valuable for parents and adults everywhere to pay more attention to adolescent behaviour.

"Parents should get to know their kids, listen to what they're saying and know how they're feeling," he said. "You should know what your kids are doing in the basement."

Mr. Elgar, a research assistant at the Centre for Rural Health Studies, Faculty of Medicine, Whitbourne, has just completed a study on the differences in coping with stress between rural and urban adolescents in Newfoundland. The results show that urban male adolescents experience more stress from social conflict and act out more, responding with violence.

Rural adolescents experience less of that kind of stress, showing a strong resiliency in the face of unemployment, economic uncertainty and loneliness.

"With smaller and more cohesive networks of peers, teachers and family members, they tend to act out less, possibly because of the disruption to the support networks they would rely on during difficult times" he said. "For urban adolescents in larger schools, becoming an outcast from one peer group leads one to seek new friends. For rural adolescents, with fewer friends to choose from, this is rarely an option."

In his study, Mr. Elgar found that female adolescents, both rural and urban, internalize reactions to stress, becoming depressed and anxious. Male adolescents are more likely to externalize their reactions in such forms as conduct and hyperactive disorders.

"When I spoke to the kids I was interviewing in the schools," said Mr. Elgar, "you could easily spot the loud ones, the troublemakers. But afterwards, when I read the comments from them on the questionnaires, it was the quiet ones who talked about suicide and depression."

Mr. Elgar pointed out that because the quieter adolescents are less noticeable, often their deeper problems remain invisible.

After considering the results of the study Mr. Elgar concluded that it is important for adolescents to develop positive and effective coping methods for dealing with stress, instead of simply reacting by acting out, becoming violent, or committing acts of vandalism.

He said it is crucial for parents, educators, and health professionals to realize that adolescents' ways of coping with stress may not be having any effect or in fact could be harmful.

Adults must help adolescents recognize conflict or acting out as problems which could lead to a number of outcomes, depending on how the adolescents respond to them and how they are resolved.

Knowing this, it is up to parents and adults to try to help them learn how to deal with stress and identify and solve problems, and form adaptive ways of expressing their emotions.

"Low-student ratios in schools, after-school programs and community groups," says Mr. Elgar, "are also three major factors which positively affect adolescents' behaviour and coping skills.