Li, Jianbin (2017) Psychological Difficulties in Adolescents: the Roles of Attachment to Parents, Self-Control and Culture. [Ph.D. thesis]
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Adolescence is a transitional period from childhood to adulthood when a host of physical, social, and psychological changes and increased stress take place. These changes and stresses are likely to result in a variety of psychological difficulties (e.g., emotional problems, behavioral problems, and interpersonal problems) that place adolescents at great risks of mental health disorders (e.g., bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, and schizophrenia), which have long-term adverse influences on individuals’ development and functioning. Screening psychological difficulties among adolescents and an investigation into its protective factors as well as the underpinning mechanisms are therefore substantially important.
During adolescence, individuals are believed to invest more in peer relationship and gradually become independent from parents. However, a continued close relationship with parents (or also known as attachment to parents) still plays a crucial role in the prevention and intervention of adolescents’ psychological difficulties because parents are still primary emotional support throughout adolescent period. If secure attachment to parents relates to fewer psychological difficulties among adolescents then what are the underlying mediators that explain this association? Secure attachment to parents facilitates emotional control and parents’ socialization towards adolescents, which thus promotes adolescents’ development of self-control. This implies that self-control may serve as a mediator in the “attachment to parents → psychological difficulties” link. In addition, relationship with parents may be influenced by one’s cultural orientation and the overall association between attachment to parents, self-control, and psychological difficulties are bounded in a certain societal context, together suggesting that both intercultural and intracultural factors may also play significant roles in levels of psychological difficulties and their association with attachment to parents and self-control.
The present research aimed to screen psychological difficulties in Chinese and Italian middle adolescents (aged 14-17 years), to investigate their association with attachment to parents and self-control, and to test the mediating role of (both trait and behavioral) self-control in the relationship between attachment to parents and psychological difficulties. In the meanwhile, the roles played by intercultural and intracultural variables were taken into consideration as well. To this end, three cross-cultural studies were carried out using multiple methodologies. In Study 1, both self-report and parent-report questionnaires were used to screen adolescents’ psychological difficulties. In Study 2, self-report measures were utilized to assess attachment to parents, trait self-control, and psychological difficulties. In Study 3, self-report measures were employed to assess intracultural variable (i.e., individualism vs. collectivism), attachment to parents, and trait self-control. Furthermore, a behavioral task (i.e., the Stroop task) was employed to assess individuals’ behavioral self-control. Across studies, intercultural factor (i.e., China vs. Italy) was treated as a categorical variable and a moderator.
Study 1 aimed to screen psychological difficulties in Chinese and Italian adolescents and to compare whether there were intercultural differences between the two samples. Two hundred and nineteen Chinese (88 boys, and 131 girls; age range: 14 - 17 years, Mage = 15.37 years, SD = 1.06) and two hundred and eighteen Italian (87 boys, and 131 girls; age range: 14 - 17 years, Mage = 15.37 years, SD = 1.06) adolescents and their fathers and mothers participated in the research. Chinese and Italian participants were recruited from Guangzhou, China and Venetian Region of Italy, respectively. Adolescents and their parents filled out the self-report and parent-report Strength and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ and SDQ-P) respectively. The self-report and parents-report total difficulties scores based on the 20 items that assess various problems (i.e., emotional problems, peer problems, hyperactivity/inattention, and conduct problems) were used as indicators of adolescents’ psychological difficulties. A series of ANOVAs were carried out in SPSS. The results mainly showed that the rates of psychological difficulties reported by Chinese and Italian adolescents were relatively low. In a similar vein, both Chinese and Italian parents reported their adolescent children had mild psychological difficulties. Furthermore, there was a significant intercultural effect, with Chinese adolescents reporting more psychological difficulties than their Italian counterparts. Similarly, Chinese parents also reported their children had more psychological difficulties than did Italian parents. No gender difference or “intercultural factor * gender” interaction was found. In addition, self-report psychological difficulties were higher than both father- and mother-report psychological difficulties, suggesting that the levels of adolescents’ psychological difficulties varied across the reports of different informants.
Study 2 aimed to investigate the association between attachment to parents, self-control, and psychological difficulties, to examine the mediation of self-control in the relation between attachment to parents and psychological difficulties in Chinese and Italian adolescents, and to compare whether the direct and indirect effects were invariant between the two samples. Six hundred and forty-five Chinese adolescents (320 boys, 325 girls; age range: 14 - 17 years, Mage = 15.50 years, SD = 1.12) and six hundred and forty-one Italian adolescents (322 boys, 319 girls; age range: 14 - 17 years, Mage = 15.50 years, SD = 1.11) were recruited from Guangzhou (China) and Venetian region of Italy, respectively. They answered a battery of questionnaires that assessed attachment to parents, trait self-control, and psychological difficulties. Multi-group path analysis was carried out in Mplus. The results showed that: (1) secure attachment to mother and high level of trait self-control were negatively related to psychological difficulties in both samples, whereas secure attachment to father showed a negative link with psychological difficulties only in Italian adolescents; (2) trait self-control mediated the association between attachment to parents and psychological difficulties both in Chinese and Italian adolescents; and (3) the direct and indirect effects were generally invariant between Chinese and Italian samples, with the only exception being that the association between attachment to father and psychological difficulties was stronger in Italian than that in Chinese adolescents.
Study 3 investigated similar questions as examined in Study 2 with some important differences. In Study 3, both intercultural and intracultural factors were taken into account and the Stroop task was also used to assess behavioral self-control. Specifically, the association between individualism-collectivism (i.e., intracultural variable), attachment to parents, trait and behavioral self-control, and psychological difficulties was investigated and the moderating effect of intercultural factor on the direct and indirect effects was also tested. Three hundred and seventy-six Chinese adolescents (157 boys, 208 girls, 11 missing; age range: 14 - 17 years, Mage = 15.46 years, SD = 1.02) and three hundred and seventy-four Italian adolescents (190 boys, 184 girls; age range: 14 - 17 years, Mage = 15.50 years, SD = 1.02) were recruited from Guangzhou (China) and Venetian region of Italy, respectively. They first worked on the computer-based Stroop task that assessed behavioral self-control and then filled out a series of questionnaires that assessed individualism-collectivism, attachment to parents, trait self-control, and psychological difficulties. Multi-group path analysis was carried out in Mplus to analyze the data. The results showed that: (1) there was no significant difference in collectivism or individualism between Chinese and Italian adolescents; (2) attachment to mother showed a significant negative link with psychological difficulties only in Italian sample; (3) trait self-control was negatively related to psychological difficulties in both samples whereas high level of behavioral self-control was related to fewer psychological difficulties only in Chinese sample; (4) endorsement of collectivism was negatively related to psychological difficulties in both Chinese and Italian adolescents; and (5) several direct and indirect effects were moderated by intercultural factor.
In summary, the current findings showed that Chinese and Italian adolescents’ psychological difficulties were relatively mild; both attachment to parents (especially attachment to mother) and self-control (especially trait self-control) were important protective factors of psychological difficulties; self-control (particularly trait self-control) partly explained how attachment to parents relates to fewer psychological difficulties; and both intercultural and intracultural factors played significant roles in the levels of psychological difficulties and their associations with attachment to parents and self-control. Implications for future research were discussed. Limitations and contributions were presented.
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