Primary Sources: Helping Homeless Youth Cope With the Risks of Street Life

A homeless young woman sits on the sidewalk with her dog.

Better to Bend Than to Break: Coping Strategies Utilized by Substance-Abusing Homeless Youth” (abstract). Forthcoming from the Journal of Health Psychology; published online October 7, 2010.

What it's about: This study compared the effectiveness of three commonly studied coping styles in reducing (1) behaviors that put youth at risk for HIV, (2) alcohol and drug use, (3) delinquency, and (4) anxiety and depression among substance-abusing homeless youth. The researchers compared how youth fared when they used the following strategies:

  • Dealing directly with problems and trying to solve them (task-oriented)
  • Responding emotionally by blaming themsevles or focusing on personal faults (emotion-oriented)
  • Avoiding the problem, for instance by buying things or spending time with other people (avoidance-oriented)

Why read it: Most research on coping strategies have studied the general population, and some have lumped together emotion- and avoidance-oriented coping. This study is the first to compare these three particular coping strategies among homeless youth who also abuse substances. Studies of the general population have found task-oriented coping to be the most effective and have associated avoidance-oriented coping with poorer adjust­ment and more problems. But youth in this study who coped mainly by using avoidance drank less, were less anxious and depressed, and were less likely to put themselves at risk for HIV than did youth who used the other two coping styles.

Biggest take away for youth workers: Both problem-solving and distracting themselves with alternative activities can help substance-abusing homeless youth cope with trauma and the stressors of being on the street.

Additional references: Homeless Street Youth: Personal Strengths and External Resources is a fact sheet published online by the University of Florida. The CDC’s Coping With a Traumatic Event: Information for Health Professionals and this previous installment of Primary Sources provide information on helping youth cope with trauma.

(Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB or the Administration for Children and Families. Go to the NCFY literature database for abstracts of this and other publications.) 

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