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Skin-deep resilience: Hidden physical health costs for minority youth overcoming adversity

A teenage black boy stands in front of a yellow school bus wearing a backpack

URBANA, Ill. — When youth thrive despite difficult circumstances, they are usually lauded for their accomplishments. However, overcoming adversity may have a hidden physiological cost, especially for minority youth. A new study from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign looks at physiological changes among high-striving minority youth in early adolescence.

“In the past decade, researchers have observed a phenomenon termed ‘skin-deep resilience.’ Historically, youth from disadvantaged backgrounds who ‘beat the odds’ were assumed to have universally positive outcomes. They are achieving academically, avoiding problematic behaviors, and scoring well on psychological measures. Outwardly these youth are seen as resilient, but these emerging ‘skin-deep resilience’ findings suggest this success may come at a cost to their physical health,” explained lead author Allen Barton, assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies and an Illinois Extension specialist in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) at U. of I. 

Skin-deep resilience has appeared particularly in samples of racial and ethnic minority youth, who are more likely to experience various stressors such as discrimination, disadvantaged neighborhoods, and socioeconomic risk.

High executive functioning –– cognitive processes related to planning, problem-solving, and goal direction –– at baseline was associated with positive outward adjustment, including fewer conduct problems and rule-breaking behaviors one year later among Black or Hispanic participants. However, for ethnic and racial minority youth that resided in more disadvantaged neighborhoods, high executive functioning was also associated with accelerated pubertal development.This pattern did not appear for White youth, suggesting the additional stressors that ethnic and racial minority youth are more likely to encounter can result in high-striving minority youth being more susceptible to worsened physiological outcomes.

Read the full release from the College of Agricultural, Consumer & Environmental Sciences

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Illinois Extension leads public outreach for University of Illinois by translating research into action plans that allow Illinois families, businesses, and community leaders to solve problems, make informed decisions, and adapt to changes and opportunities. Illinois Extension is part of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.