How Does Perceived Hopelessness Affect Disadvantaged Children?

Hopelessness describes an individual’s feelings related to expected failures or negative outcomes. Many studies have examined how a mother’s psychological state affects the mental well-being of her child, but few of them have focused specifically on hopelessness. For socially disadvantaged children, and in particular, African American children from single-mother households, hopelessness may be more pervasive than for other children. Crime, violence, and substance use may be more prevalent in poorer neighborhoods and can shape the way in which children envision their futures. There is evidence that negative neighborhood conditions increase externalizing and internalizing behaviors. Children raised in adverse environments are more likely to develop anxiety and depression than other children and are also more likely to take risks and be dismissive of rules and regulations.

Single African American mothers who live in socially at-risk communities may do so not due to financial limitation but rather to maintain ties with their communities and family members. Having to overcome prejudice and discrimination that may exist in other neighborhoods can dissuade high-income families from leaving their neighborhoods of origin. Regardless of the crime or danger that occurs, the sense of connection to their peers may provide a buffer from hopelessness that might otherwise develop in these mothers. Michelle Gonzalez of the Department of Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill wanted to find out how perceptions of hopelessness in single African American mothers affected the hopelessness of their children and how community orientation influenced those perceptions. She said, “Mothers, particularly single mothers, are the primary familial influences on adolescent children.”

Gonzalez evaluated 171 African American teens who were being raised by single mothers. The teens, all from various types of neighborhoods; ranged in age from 11 to 16 years old. Gonzales discovered that the participants with the highest levels of both externalizing and internalizing behaviors were the ones with mothers who perceived high rates of community violence and crime. Surprisingly, although internalizing behaviors were elevated slightly, the externalizing behaviors were more extreme in the children whose mothers had high levels of hopelessness. This suggests that the teens from disadvantaged neighborhoods may believe that symptoms of depression and anxiety would be less tolerated by their peers than externalizing behaviors such as risk taking and rule breaking. These findings underscore the importance of evaluating the mental state of a mother when dealing with maladaptive coping behaviors in teens who express feelings of hopelessness.

Gonzalez, M., Jones, D. J., Kincaid, C. Y., Cuellar, J. (2012). Neighborhood context and adjustment in African American youths from single mother homes: The intervening role of hopelessness. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 18.2, 109-117.

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  • Aaron Anderson & The Marriage and Family Clinic

    Aaron Anderson & The Marriage and Family Clinic

    May 16th, 2012 at 8:45 PM

    As a marriage and family counselor, I applaud folks for not wanting to leave their loved ones and trying to keep connections with family. Having worked in some of these nieghborhoods I can see why some of the mothers and teens have feelings of hopelessness. These kids live in bad circumstances and it’s no place for softies. Now that there is research showing that hopelessness really plays a part in not elevating yourself above your circumstnaces, how do we engender hope with folks in these awful circumstances?

  • matt


    May 17th, 2012 at 4:19 AM

    very sad that even children are now experiencing this kid of hopeless pattern, they are usually so much more optimistic than adults

  • Jason


    May 17th, 2012 at 3:44 PM

    Well, if they hear their parents talk about all of their aggravations all of the time then chances are that is how the children are going to come to feel about life as well. Is this really the lesson that you want to teach your child, that all is hopeless so all there is to do is to give up? I would think that we would all want to give them something better than that. I know I do, and I think that I would even if I felt that I was at a disadvantage to the rest of society.

  • Jack Q

    Jack Q

    May 19th, 2012 at 7:53 AM

    If anything these are kids who deserve a pep rally every day, and not a pity party!

  • frannie


    May 21st, 2012 at 4:18 AM

    These children are growing up in circumstances that most of us don’t know the first thing about.
    They are faced every day with sadness, poverty, hunger, depression. . . all of which could make even the sunnniest personality feel depressed and hopeless after living this daily.
    You think that there can be no way to stop all of this except to get them out of this environment, but in most cases that is not a possibility and many of them have to stay stuck in that environment.
    If they live this their own lives, it is true that maybe the don’t know anything any better; but more than likely they know that there is something more to life than this.
    Does this help them to have even stronger goals that they would like to achieve or does this realization make them feel even more hopeless?

  • Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay

    Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay

    December 9th, 2012 at 10:34 AM

    As you know most of the communities (Bengali) in this sub-continent are infected by ‘Culture of Poverty(hopelessness)’ syndrome, irrespective of class or economic strata, lives in pavement or apartment. Nobody is seriously ashamed of or regret the deep-rooted corruption, decaying general quality of life, worst Politico-Governance, bad work place, weak mother language, filth, continuous consumption of common social space (mental as well as physical, both). We are becoming parents only by self-procreation – mindlessly, blindfold (supported by some lame excuses), depriving the forthcoming children’s fundamental right(of a decent & caring society, fearless & dignified living). We are being driven by the very animal instinct, pushing persons for a nasty survival, indulging the entire community to go perish. Do not ever look for other positive alternative gesture/values to perform more human way of parenthood – deliberately stop giving birth to any child him/herself till the entire society improves up to the mark, co-parenting children those are born out of extreme poverty willfully, instead. If the Bengali people ever opt for a freedom from vicious cycle of poverty, need to involve in Production of Space(Henri Lefebvre), form a positive sentiment to overcome the inherent ‘hopeless’ mindset, definite application of human dignity, decent Politics would certainly come up. – SB, 16/4, Girish Banerjee Lane, Howrah -711101, India.

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