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Early research conceptualized control beliefs as a bipolar, unidimensional construct (Lefcourt, 1976; Nowicki & Strickland, 1974; Rotter, 1966). External control belief was conceptualized as a generalized belief that outcomes are determined by external factors, whereas an internal control belief was conceptualized as the belief that outcomes are contingent on one's own responses. More recently, theoretically meaningful distinctions have been proposed for the multiple dimensions of children's control beliefs. Connell (1985) identified three dimensions of children's control beliefs that refer to the degree to which children report that outcomes are caused by themselves (internal), that outcomes are caused by other people (powerful others), or that the child does not know what causes outcomes to occur (unknown). This model separates external causes into two dimensions of "powerful others" and "unknown," based on Connell's finding in open-ended interviews that children often reported they "did not know" why events occurred. A second distinction between control beliefs is control over positive and negative events. This distinction is important because research has shown that children make different causal explanations for good events and bad events (Peterson & Seligman, 1984).
Coping as Mediators of the Relations Between Control Beliefs and Children's Mental Health Problems
Negative Appraisal as a Mediator of the Relations Between Control Beliefs and Children's Psychological Adjustment Problems
The first finding of this study is that unknown control beliefs were significantly related to higher mental health problems. This replicates similar findings with other populations, including depressed children and the general population (Weisz et al., 1989; Weisz et al., 1993; Weisz, Weiss, Wasserman, & Rintoul, 1987). This study adds the finding that the children's unknown control beliefs relate to higher parent-reported as well as child-reported symptoms and, therefore, cannot be accounted for by same informant method variance. Prior research using the multidimensional control belief scale has provided inconsistent evidence about the relations between internal control beliefs and children's symptoms (Seifer, Sameroff, Baldwin, & Baldwin, 1991; Weisz et al., 1989; Weisz et al., 1993; Weisz et al., 1987). Thus, the significance of this dimension of control beliefs requires further investigation. It may be that finer distinctions between kinds of internal control beliefs, such as effort versus ability (Diener & Dweck, 1978) or characterological versus behavioral (e.g. Janoff-Bulman, 1979), are critical to more fully understand how these beliefs affect coping and adjustment.
The pattern of positive relations of the control belief variables with active and avoidant coping is surprising. Unknown control and internal control beliefs predicted both active and avoidant coping. Because active coping generally is expected to be adaptive and avoidant coping generally is expected to be maladaptive, these results appear counterintuitive. The relation between internal control and active coping was expected, based on the theory that children who believe they can control events are more likely to directly engage in problem-solving behaviors to change stressful situations. Although the positive relation between internal control beliefs and avoidant coping theoretically is counterintuitive, Kliewer (1991) reported similar findings in a sample of elementary school children. She proposed that because the children were describing their coping with primarily uncontrollable stressors, avoidant coping might be adaptive in these situations, and particularly, cognitive avoidance might reflect their attempts to retain control over these situations. Further research is needed to explore how children with different control beliefs cope across controllable and uncontrollable situations. It may be that internal control beliefs predict the ability to select the most effective coping strategies in each situation (Janoff-Bulman & Brickman, 1982).
The second interesting finding was the pattern of relations between control beliefs, negative appraisal, and mental health problems. In the path model, only unknown control for positive events had a significant path to higher negative appraisals. The pathway linking unknown control beliefs for positive events to child-reported mental health problems was mediated by negative appraisals of stressful events. This provides empirical evidence supporting one specific mechanism by which unknown control beliefs may affect children's mental health problems. It is interesting to speculate why children who are uncertain as to why events occur may generate more negative appraisals. It may be that children who do not understand why events occur are more likely to make personally threatening interpretations. For example, if children of divorce do not understand why some parents get along after divorce whereas others continue to argue, they may be more likely to believe that the arguments of their parents are attributable to something that they did. Knowing why events occur may provide children with a sense of secondary control (Rothbaum, Weisz, & Snyder, 1982) in which events are more predictable and understandable. This, in turn, may lower their level of stressful arousal and reduce the likelihood that they would develop personally threatening appraisals for events.
One implication from our findings is that there should be greater emphasis on helping children obtain a nonthreatening understanding of why events occur. This study suggests that the unknown dimension of control may be particularly relevant for children of divorce who encounter stressors that are often outside their realm of control (e.g., parental conflict, infrequent contact with dad, moving to a new home, etc.). An application of this is seen in a preventive intervention program developed by Pedro-Carroll and Cowen (1985) that taught children of divorce to distinguish between controllable and uncontrollable events. Because effective coping differs with the controllability of the event, programs are more likely to be effective if they can teach children how to cope with these two different types of events. Another important implication is that there should be a greater focus on reducing children's negative appraisals in preventive intervention programs for children of divorce. Research has repeatedly confirmed that negative cognition about the divorce, such as self-blame, overgeneralization, and pessimism, relate to more psychological problems (Krantz et al., 1985; Mazur, Wolchik, & Sandler, 1992). Moreover, this study showed that negative appraisals are particularly pronounced among children with high unknown control beliefs. Thus, one preventive intervention technique may involve helping children to understand what happens when parents divorce and teaching them not to make negative appraisals in stressful situations that are difficult to understand.
Reflection Exercise #2
Online Continuing Education QUESTION 9
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