Youth coping strategies and physiological responses interact to affect adjustment

youth in classroom
Youth in a classroom. Photo: Max Fischer,

URBANA, Ill. – Transition to middle school can be a challenging time for adolescents as they must adapt to new peer groups and academic environments. A new study from the University of Illinois explores how youth coping strategies interact with biological responses to predict social and academic adjustment.

When faced with stressful situations, there are several strategies youth can use.

“We broadly categorize youth’s coping responses as engagement coping and disengagement coping. Typical engagement coping strategies include reframing the problem and thinking about it positively, taking actions to change the situation, and regulating negative emotions. Some disengagement coping strategies are avoiding or dismissing the problem, or wishing that the problem never existed,” says Xiaomei Li, doctoral candidate in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies (HDFS) at U of I and the paper’s lead author.

In addition to behavioral coping strategies, youth experience involuntary biological stress responses such as increased heart rate and blood flow. The researchers wanted to understand how physiological reactions interact with behavioral responses in youth, and what that means for social and academic adjustment during transition to middle school, an important developmental milestone for adolescents.

The study surveyed a sample of children during their last semester of fifth grade and again after they started middle school. The youth and their mothers were invited to a university research lab, where they completed checklists about current peer and academic stressors. The youth were outfitted with electrodes to measure cardiac responses. First, they watched a relaxing nature video to establish baseline measures. Next, they had two five-minute conversations with their mothers about a peer and an academic problem of their choice.

At the end of the lab visit, and again at a follow-up visit about seven months later, youth, mothers, and teachers completed surveys about youth social and academic adjustment. 

The study is part of a larger, ongoing project in the research lab of Kelly Tu, an associate professor in HDFS and co-author on the paper. Previously, Tu and Li looked at how the mother-youth interaction affected youth coping responses. In this study they focused on youth regulatory responses in relation to adjustment.

As expected, the researchers found that more frequent use of engagement coping strategies was generally associated with better social and academic adjustment. However, there were some moderating effects of the physiological responses.

The autonomic nervous system is composed of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which regulate cardiovascular functions. Li compares these systems to a gas and a brake pedal – whereas enhanced SNS activities increase the heart rate and prepare one for “fight or flight” behaviors (‘gas’), enhanced PNS activities promote rest and relaxation of the cardiovascular system by lowering the heart rate (‘brake’). The coordination between both systems helps one to engage in adaptive stress responses.

In this study, the researchers focused on the baseline cardiac autonomic regulation (CAR), which indicates the combined activity of the SNS and the PNS during rest. This can manifest as stronger activity in both systems (coactivation) or weaker activity in both systems (coinhibition). Generally, a greater CAR baseline indicates a more flexible bodily state to engage in stress responses, while a smaller CAR baseline indicates an under-aroused, disengaged bodily state.

“By looking at the combination of the two domains, we get a more comprehensive overview of the overall stress response system, both behaviorally and through interrelated activities in both branches of the autonomic nervous system. We’re getting a fuller picture of an individual’s regulatory capacity,” Tu states.

Li and Tu found that youth with lower CAR were less likely to adjust well, even if they had good coping strategies.

“It is important to teach youth the coping strategies that are linked with better social and academic adjustment outcomes. But for youth with weaker CAR baseline, we might need to modify those strategies. For example, if you tell a youth to engage with a stressor, but that's not what their body is preparing them to do, then it might not necessarily lead to better adjustment. It is very important that there is a match between behavioral strategies and biological capacity in order to achieve a better outcome,” Li says. 

Practitioners working with youth may not know whether someone has high or low regulatory capacity, but intervention programs could incorporate biofeedback or mindfulness and meditation practices, targeting both biological and behavioral responses to help set youth up for better adjustment, the researchers suggest.

“Autonomic nervous system (ANS) functioning can be influenced by environmental factors, such as chronic stress. Blunted or hyper-aroused physiological stress responses could facilitate or hinder the use of behavioral strategies, together informing differential youth adjustment outcomes. Patterns of ANS responses are relatively stable across childhood, but there may still be room for change and malleability,” Tu explains.

Research is often done with at-risk youth and focusing on mental health concerns, but this study features a community sample of youth facing everyday challenges, providing a broader understanding of the social and academic lives of adolescents during an important developmental phase.

The Department of Human Development and Family Studies is in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, University of Illinois.

The paper, “Youth coping and cardiac autonomic functioning: Implications for social and academic adjustment,” is published in Developmental Psychobiology  [10.1002/dev.22338]. Authors include Xiaomei Li, Tianying Cai, Virnaliz Jimenez and Kelly Tu. Funding was provided by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture

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