Youth from disadvantaged areas of large cities face multiple obstacles to healthy development. They are disproportionately exposed to the detrimental effects of poverty and its concomitant conditions, including family instability, child abuse and neglect, crime, drugs, and violence (1,2). Chronic and often intense exposure to these stressors in turn contributes to elevated rates of school dropout, unemployment, adolescent pregnancy, delinquency, and other problems (3).
Despite daunting statistics, many inner-city youth do survive these obstacles and go on to lead successful adult lives. Resilient youth—those doing well despite adversity—are autonomous and optimistic, and they possess good problem-solving skills; they have stable extended families that provide rules and routines; and they have contact with other supportive adults, such as teachers, coaches, clergy, and mental health professionals (4,5). Although research on such protective factors among disadvantaged urban youth is not well developed, findings suggest that resilience is fostered by factors such as a sense of personal control, good social skills, spirituality, ethnic identity, and family and other forms of social support (6,7).
However, assessment of resilience among inner-city youth has been limited by the fact that many measures of this construct were developed primarily with middle-class youth. This bias constrains the cultural relevance of measures and excludes factors that are potentially important for inner-city youth, such as "street smarts" (7). There is a need to develop and validate measures that assess potential protective factors relevant to disadvantaged urban youth.
Participants and procedures
Participants were subjects in a broader study of neighborhood affiliation and risk behavior among urban youth. A total of 256 adolescents were recruited from a public high school in Baltimore through classroom presentations and class meetings during the 1997-1998 scholastic year. Informed consent was obtained from students or, for those under age 18, from students and their parents or guardians. Eighty-eight percent of participants were African American (N=225), 8 percent were Caucasian (N=21), and 4 percent were from other ethnic groups (N=10). The mean±SD age was 15.9±1.7 years, with a range of 13 years to 19 years. One hundred five of the participants, or 41 percent, were male, and 151, or 59 percent, were female.
Participants completed a six-part questionnaire for this study individually in classrooms, on average taking around 45 minutes. Questionnaires were completed anonymously, with only age and gender indicated (code numbers were subsequently assigned).
Participants completed a questionnaire containing six self-report measures as part of the broader study. The three measures relevant to the study reported here are described below.
My Life Questionnaire (MLQ). Initial items for the MLQ were developed on the basis of clinical experience in working with inner-city youth from Baltimore and of focus groups with teenagers to evaluate the items' relevance. The original scale included 23 items assessing issues such as avoidance of conflict and negative peer situations, anger management, investment in academics, family support, religious involvement, and maintaining a positive focus. Each item was rated on a 7-point scale, with 1 representing "very untrue" and 7 representing "very true." Teenagers in the focus groups provided assistance in ensuring that items were worded appropriately, and whenever feasible we included their language verbatim (for example, "When others are angry, I try to chill," and "I try to ignore 'he say she say'").
Youth Self-Report (YSR). The YSR is a widely used, psychometrically sound measure of emotional and behavioral problems in youth aged 11 years and older (8). The measure contains 112 items and yields T scores allowing normative comparisons on scales measuring factors such as internalizing problems (for example, depression or anxiety), externalizing problems (for example, aggression, delinquency), and total behavioral problems.
Exposure to Violence Screening Measure (EVSM). This nine-item scale assesses exposure to violence for youth aged 11 to 19 across three contexts—knowing victims, witnessing violence, and being victimized—and yields a total score of violence exposure (9). The internal consistency of the subscales (Cronbach's alpha=.51 to .78) and the total score (alpha=.86) has been found to be adequate. In addition, the EVSM's validity has been supported by positive correlations with measures of life stress and emotional and behavioral problems (Weist MD, Acosta OM, Youngstom E, unpublished data, 2000).
Items included in the My Life Questionnaire
Items pertaining to avoiding negative peer influences
I try hard to stay out of beefs
I let stuff go and walk away
I try to ignore "he say she say"
When others are angry I try to chill
I will refuse to do things I shouldn't do
I usually won't say which hood I'm from
Items pertaining to focusing on the future
I try to stay focused on the future
I care about how I do in school
I try hard to learn and study
I try to learn new skills
Items pertaining to religious involvement
I have a strong religious faith
Item-total correlations were calculated on the original 23-item scale to determine whether any items were unrelated to the overall test construct. Three items were not significantly related to the overall construct and were removed.
An exploratory principal-axis factor analysis was then conducted on the remaining 20 items. This analysis yielded four factors. The fourth factor had an alpha less than .60 and contained items that were conceptually unrelated. These items were therefore removed. The three remaining factors demonstrated alpha values greater than .70, and each made theoretical and conceptual sense. Factor 1 contained six items related to avoidance of negative peer influences (alpha=.79). Factor two contained four items related to a focus on the future (alpha=.83). Factor three contained two items related to religious involvement (alpha=.72). The final 12 items in the scale are shown in the accompanying box.
With 12 items in the final measure, each scored on a 7-point scale, the maximum score on the measure is 84. The mean±SD score for males in the sample was 58±13.9, and for females 65.3±11.7. Factor scores for males on subscales measuring peer influences, future focus, and religious involvement were 26.8±8.2, 22.2±5.8, and 8.6±3.4, respectively, and for females, 31.4±7.8, 24.9±4.1, and 9.5±3.8.
We then conducted correlational analyses to assess the relationship between factor scores on the MLQ and youths' self-reports of internalizing and externalizing symptoms, as measured by the YSR, as well as total exposure to violence, as measured by the EVSM. All three factors of the MLQ were negatively correlated with YSR externalizing scores (avoidance of negative peer influences: r=-.37, p<.001; focus on the future: r=-.21, p<.005: religious involvement: r=-.23, p<.005), providing support for the validity of the measure. When exposure to violence was accounted for, partial correlations still revealed a significant negative relationship between externalizing behavior problems and all three factors of the MLQ (avoidance of negative peer influences: r=-.30, p<.001; focus on the future: r=-.21, p<.05; religious involvement: r=-.18, p<.05). No significant findings emerged with regard to MLQ factor scores and YSR internalizing problems.
In this study we documented the psychometric qualities and relevance to inner-city youth of the My Life Questionnaire, a self-report measure of protective factors. The final measure contains 12 items written in language endorsed by inner-city youth and reflecting concepts they viewed as critical to succeeding in the face of adversity. The three factors of the measure—avoiding negative peer influences, focusing on the future, and religious involvement—were also consistent with factors viewed as important to positive development by urban youth and therapists working with them. This brief scale can be completed quickly by youth and can provide important information to clinicians on operant protective factors as well as factors that need to be strengthened.
A number of research avenues for the measure hold promise as well. One is further descriptive assessment of the measure using relevant outcome variables such as school performance and behavioral functioning with larger sample sizes. Another is assessing the relative influence of items in the measure in the lives of youth who have been identified as resilient.
This work was supported in part by project MCJ24SH02-01-0 from the Office of Adolescent Health, Maternal and Child Health Bureau (Title V, Social Security Act), Health Resources and Services Administration, Department of Health and Human Services.
The authors were all affiliated with the University of Maryland School of Medicine when this study was conducted. Dr. Weist and Dr. Tashman are with the department of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. Ms. Albus is a student in the department of psychology at the University of Delaware in Newark. Dr. Bickham is with the department of psychology at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York. Dr. Perez-Febles is with Abt Associates in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Send correspondence to Dr. Weist, Center for School Mental Health Assistance, Department of Psychiatry, University of Maryland, Baltimore, Maryland 21201 (e-mail, email@example.com).