Adolescent social marginalization and psychological distress across the transition to adulthood

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2017-05

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Olson, Julie Skalamera

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Abstract

Adolescence is a developmentally rich stage of the life course during which young people lay the foundation for future adjustment, functioning, health, and well-being. Adolescents experience profound changes to their brains and bodies, individuate from their parents, traverse the complex social systems of U.S. high schools, and ascribe increased importance to their relationships with peers. The confluence of these changes means that young people who become socially marginalized or disconnected from peers in high school face psychological distress in the short term. Moreover, the implications of adolescent marginalization for mental health may reverberate and cascade across the transition to adulthood, jeopardizing trajectories of psychological well-being. In this spirit, this dissertation asks: will adolescent social marginalization leave permanent scars on mental health, and if so, for whom? To explore these questions, I draw on a developmental life course framework and apply structural equation modeling techniques to longitudinal data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health; n = 10,869). Results from my analyses revealed that adolescence is a sensitive period of the life course during which marginalization from peers triggers problematic mental health trajectories into adulthood regardless of post-high school experiences and despite accessing social resources in high school that would otherwise buffer youth from unhealthy psychological trajectories. These patterns were more distinct among girls than boys. Additionally, trajectories of distress were closely connected with trajectories of binge drinking among marginalized youth in general, and particularly among boys. The bi-directionality of these trajectories suggests that the social ups and downs of high school affect adjustment, functioning, and behaviors well into adulthood. Overall, this dissertation informs theoretical understanding of risk and resilience by pointing to adolescence as a sensitive developmental moment during which social risks are particularly influential on long-term trajectories of health and well-being.

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