Self-control: a double-edged sword for high-striving, low-income youth

Basheer Tome,, CC BY 2.0
Basheer Tome,, CC BY 2.0

Developmental psychologist Gene Brody talks about ‘skin-deep resilience’ in African American youth and its negative effects on health.

Meeri Kim: As the Director of the Center for Family Research, much of your work focuses on African American families and communities in the rural southern U.S. What is the significance of self-control in this youth population?

Gene Brody: We are looking at qualities of young people who grow up in the rural South that forecast high educational achievement, good psychological adjustment, and positive integration with family, friends, and the community. One characteristic that fosters these outcomes despite growing up in challenging economic circumstances is self-control.

Self-control is the ability to plan ahead, set goals, and persist in meeting those goals. It also includes the abilities to modulate emotional expression, control impulses, and delay gratification. Some antecedents to developing self-control are home environments that are organized, predictable, and nurturing. Research has demonstrated that self-control predicts physical health, personal finances, educational outcomes, and positive relationships during adulthood. This skill is an important quality of youth that carries forward across time.

MK: Despite all these positive outcomes, you have nevertheless found that self-control acts as a double-edged sword for low socioeconomic status (SES) youth.

GB: Despite the risks that lower-income children face, we know that a significant minority beat the odds. They perform admirably in school, avoid drugs, and go on to college. Psychologists refer to these children as resilient, because they achieve positive outcomes in adverse circumstances. They do so in part by cultivating high levels of self-control – a kind of determined persistence.

“Self-control predicts physical health, personal finances, educational outcomes, and positive relationships during adulthood.”

Several years ago, we started studying these resilient young people, trying to find out if their success stories also translated into physical health benefits. We reasoned that, if disadvantaged children were succeeding academically and emotionally, they might also be protected from health problems that were more common in lower-income youth. As it turned out the exact opposite was true. These young people were achieving success by all convention markers: doing well in school, staying out of trouble, making friends and developing a positive sense of sense. Underneath, however, their physical health was deteriorating.

Their high levels of self-control are taking a toll on their physical health, thus acting as a double-edge sword. For this population, their resilience may only be “skin deep.”

MK: What has your research found to support this concept of “skin-deep resilience”?

GB: Our first hints of this pattern came in a study of 489 rural African-American young people in Georgia. Most came from poor families whom we had been tracking for more than 15 years. We found a subgroup of resilient children who, despite these obstacles, were rated at age 11 by their teachers as having high levels of self-control – they were diligent, focused, patient, and academically successful. At age 19, those who were rated as having high levels of self-control were less likely to have behavioral or emotional problems or use drugs.

However, when we looked beneath the surface, these resilient young people were not faring well. Compared with others in the study, they were more obese, had higher blood pressure, and produced more stress hormones like cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline.

“Their high levels of self-control are taking a toll on their physical health.”

In our latest study, we wanted to see whether we would find the skin-deep resilience pattern in a national sample of youth obtained from the U.S. Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health. African American youth who were highly goal-directed and hardworking at age 16 were more likely to graduate from college and have greater personal resources at age 29. However, they also had a higher chance of having type 2 diabetes. This was the first demonstration that the skin-deep resilience pattern forecasts a heightened risk of developing a chronic disease.

MK: Given the importance of self-control, some policy-makers wish to emphasize this skill in children to improve a population’s psychological and financial health. Do you have any thoughts on programs that could do this while avoiding the negative health effects for skin-deep resilient youth?

GB: To start, schools and colleges that serve lower-income students could provide health education, screenings, and check-ups as part of their curriculum. This would allow us to detect and address health problems before they become serious. Second, schools and clinics could offer stress management programs, targeting lower-income, higher achieving young people, to help them balance the competing demands on their minds and bodies.

Gene Brody is a Distinguished Research Professor of Child and Family Development at the University of Georgia and Director of the Center for Family Research. He completed his graduate education at the University of Arizona. During the first half of his career, his research focused on the contributions of parental psychological functioning, parenting practices and sibling relationships to the emotional and behavioral well-being of children and adolescents. These studies laid a foundation for the research that Dr. Brody has conducted during the second half of his career. This work has followed rural African-American families over time in an attempt to identify family and community processes that forecast academic, emotional and behavioral competence in children and adolescents living in conditions of environmental stress. The results of this research have informed the development of a prevention program, The Strong African-American Families (SAAF) Program, for rural families with early adolescent children. The effectiveness of this program in preventing alcohol and substance use and early onset sexual behavior is now being tested in a randomized prevention trial.

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