Could family socioeconomic position be a factor in a teenager’s well-being?

Happy family of three sitting by their dinning room table.

Have you ever considered how parents’ financial difficulties could affect their child’s behavior? New research from Sonya Xinyue Xiao, assistant professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences, demonstrated that when families face financial difficulties, their teenage children are less likely to engage in helping, or prosocial, behavior. 

 It’s a useful piece of the puzzle to the age-old question of why your teenager is acting like that. 

 The project was awarded to Xiao via the Society in Research for Child Development (SRCD) Small Grants for Early Career Scholars in 2021. In this project, Xiao examined early adolescents’ prosocial behavior and attitudes toward diverse others. through her Prosocial Behavior in Juveniles (PBinJ) project.  

 During 2021-2022, PBinJ surveyed 143 adolescents between the ages of 11-14 and their parents. Among the children, 54.6 percent were white, 23.8 percent were Black, 11.2 percent were Asian, 8.4 percent were Hispanic and 2.1 percent were multiracial. They asked about the family’s finances and the prosocial behaviors that parents observed in their teenagers. 

 The researchers  found that teens whose families are having a harder time financially are less likely to engage in emotional (motivated by feelings) and dire (motivated by an emergency) prosocial behavior. The findings offer insight into the teenage development and what parents and other mentors can consider as they work with teens. 

 “As a society, we put blame on our teenagers for their rebellious attitudes, but this research indicates that there is more than meets the eyes,” Xiao said . “This research can be beneficial in helping parents understand the wider impact that their financial situation might have on the types of prosocial behavior their children engage in.” 

 The researchers also found that the family’s financial difficulties that generated stress on the parents did not have an association with their teen’s extracurricular activities, such as interpersonal relationships or their sexual activity. 

 To date, there is little research focused on positive developmental outcomes and types of prosocial behaviors related to the perceived economic pressures a family experiences. Prosocial behavior growth is required early on in the adolescent’s development, which is why  Xiao’s vision for PBinJ is to understand factors and processes related to youth’s kindness development during this stage of life.  

 Xiao is dedicated to making her findings available to the public through methods other than regular journal articles. Xiao, alongside her NAU undergraduate researchers Kasandra Bermúdez, Jacob P. Hoffman, Hunter R. Herrington and Isaac Dempsey, simplified this study over the summer and will share it with the project participants along with her first research manuscript. 

 Read more from Xiao and her team about the importance of teen’s happiness. 

 “We are interested in group-based identities (e.g., gender) and youth’s socialization experiences (e.g., friendships, relationships with parents),” Xiao said. “We are excited to continue investigating the predictors and processes related to youth’s prosocial behavior, or kindness, to diverse others.” 

Xiao and her team will follow their surveyed teens into the third year so they can gain a greater understanding of the developmental patterns of youth kindness development. 


NAU Communications