Youth Self-Report of Avoidant Coping Strategies

In cross-sectional studies, youth-reported avoidant strategies have been linked to internalizing and externalizing symptoms. In a series of community and clinical studies, Compas, Connor-Smith, and colleagues identified three broad stress-response styles: engagement coping, disengagement coping, and involuntary responding (Compas, Connor-Smith, Saltzman, Thomsen, & Wadsworth, 2001; Connor-Smith, Compas, Wadsworth, Thomsen, & Saltzman, 2000). Engagement coping is conscious effort directed toward a stressor (e.g., problem solving, emotional regulation, cognitive restructuring) that is consistent with approach behavior. Disengagement (or avoidant) coping includes most mental and behavioral conscious efforts to avoid stressors (e.g., denial, wishful thinking, behavioral avoidance). Involuntary responding includes conditioned reactions that are not under volitional control (e.g., rumination, intrusive thinking, emotional arousal, cognitive interference, inaction). In community samples (Compas et al., 2001), engagement coping has shown correlations with lower internalizing symptoms (r = -.39 to -.52) and lower externalizing problems (r = -.27 to -.37). Disengagement coping has been correlated with higher internalizing and externalizing symptoms (r = .18 to .29). Involuntary responding also proves strongly correlated with internalizing symptoms (r = .36 to .53).

In clinical samples, structural equation models (Compas et al., 2006) have demonstrated that specific anxiety and depression symptoms can be differentially predicted by engagement and disengagement coping. In a sample of adolescents with recurrent abdominal pain, disengagement coping strongly predicted higher levels of anxiety, depression, and somatic complaints. Secondary control engagement coping (acceptance, distraction, positive thinking, cognitive restructuring) predicted lower levels of anxiety and depression symptoms and somatic complaints. Primary control engagement (problem solving, emotion regulation, emotional expression), surprisingly, did not. A series of studies with offspring of depressed parents (Jaser et al., 2005, 2007; Langrock, Compas, Keller, & Merchant, 2002) did not find significant relations between disengagement coping and anxiety or depression symptoms, but secondary control engagement coping was again significantly related to better health. Likewise, in a treatment study (Compas et al., 2010), mediation analysis demonstrated that increases in secondary control coping strategies led to subsequent change in internalizing symptoms during preventive family treatment directed at families with a parent with past depression. Coping change accounted for approximately half of the intervention effect. The differences in outcomes across these studies may reflect differences in samples (identified pediatric youth vs. offspring of depressed parents) and reporter differences (youth vs. parent report). The mixed findings for the relationship between disengagement coping and anxious and depressed symptoms may reflect the fact that the subscale entails multiple forms of disengagement, including mental and behavioral avoidance. Isolating behavioral avoidance from denial and wishful thinking may produce more consistent findings.

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