A high-rise, drug-infested hell (but it's still home, sweet home)

9th April 2010 at 01:00
Teens living in impoverished urban areas stave off grim realities of their surroundings with fantasy and positivity, researchers find

Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds often deny the reality of their circumstances, creating a rose-tinted alternative that allows them to feel better about themselves, new research has found.

Jo-Anne Dillabough, of Cambridge University, and Jacqueline Kennelly, of Carleton University, Ottawa, interviewed pupils aged 13-16 from two Canadian high schools. Their results are published in the book Lost Youth in the Global City.

Many of the pupils lived in impoverished inner-city areas. Most recognised the stereotypes associated with backgrounds of this type.

Sarah said: "When I tell somebody I go to this school, they'll say: 'Are you, like, a gangster chick?'"

Yet few spoke of their homes in purely negative terms. Above a picture of her tower-block home, 14-year-old Clara had written the words "home, sweet home".

"What I like about this place is it's very quiet and lovely," she said. Then: "My building - someone got killed there. Yeah, in the elevator."

Similarly, Georgina, 15, dwelt on the positive side. "Some people may describe this place as bad, but I don't think so, because I feel safe," she said. "Well, I don't feel safe, but I'm used to it, I know the place, so I can go anywhere and I won't get lost. But there is lots of crime."

The researchers say pupils fantasise about living somewhere richer to separate themselves from the shame and revulsion they feel about their current surroundings.

Other pupils insist there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the surroundings and any danger is introduced by interlopers. For example, Cecilia said her home "isn't the greatest area", but this was because "lots of homeless and criminals" live there.

And 15-year-old Leon described drug dealers who "try to sell weed to me" and said "after a while, it gets annoying".

The pupils also spoke about strategies they developed to cope with dangers. Several mentioned saying "hi" to imaginary people in doorways to create the impression that they were being looked after by benevolent adults.

This fantasy extended into their home lives, too. Hayden described how his mother held down two jobs: one from 6am until 4pm, and another from 5pm until 10pm.

But when the researchers asked whether he would change this situation, he said: "No, everything's OK with me."

The researchers suggest that these types of responses reflect teenagers' efforts to feel better about their lives.

"Young people daily confront circumstances which are wholly beyond their control," they said. "This lack of control was often resolved in forms of denial and ambivalence and, when possible, resilience."

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