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Internalizing Symptoms and Ethnic-Racial Identity Development During Adolescence

Dan Ta

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill



Most research examining the development of ethnic-racial identity has focused on peer and family predictors, but there is limited literature regarding the effect that psychological stress may have in the development of ethnic identity commitment and exploration among adolescents. Internalizing symptoms such as social anxiety and depression are important factors to consider during the development of ethnic-racial identity. The current study analyzed associations among ethnic-racial identity, social anxiety, depressive symptoms, social preference, and popularity within a sample of African American and Latinx adolescents. Higher social anxiety was

longitudinally associated with lower ethnic-racial identity commitment over time, suggesting that psychological distress may affect how ethnic-racial identity develops.


Internalizing Symptoms as a Predictor of Ethnic-Racial Identity Development

Ethic-racial identity refers to an individual’s self-concept as belonging to, or being a member of a particular ethnic or racial group and share some of the following elements such as culture or language. Prior literature has shown that racial-ethnic identity has effects on well-being and mental health. In 2006, researchers found that a strong commitment to ethnic-racial identity provided buffering effects against racial discrimination and peer victimization (Green, Way, and Pahl). By buffering against the negative effects of racial discrimination, strong racial-ethnic identity can then also buffer against depressive symptoms that can occur due to repeated peer victimization or discrimination. Research in previous years has supported this theory, with results that among minority adolescents and students, racial-ethnic identity can protect against depressive symptoms as it pertains to the consequences of discrimination. (Greene, Way, & Pahl, 2006). Strong racial-ethnic identity has other far reaching benefits such as promoting higher academic achievement. Moses and Villodas (2019) found that strong ethic-racial identity in African-American adolescents predicted better education expectation. In addition, strong racial-ethnic identity has positive effects on daily psychological well-being of adolescents from minority backgrounds, and can in turn promote better health overall (Kiang, et al. 2006).


more activity with individuals like them, or internet research on their history and meaning of their own race/ethnicity. After this stage of exploration, individuals then achieve a more stable racial ethnic identity and achieve high commitment to it, thereby strengthening their racial-ethnic identity and their self-concept as well.

Given the importance of ethnic-racial identity, research in recent years has increasingly focused on how it develops and what factors could play a role. For example, prior studies have found that social factors during adolescence and development could impact how ethnic-racial identity is formed. Quintana, Castañeda-English, and Ybarra (1996) found that parental ethnic socialization could be predictive of racial identity development. In addition, a more recent study has examined how differential associations of cultural socialization by both parents and peers can affects pathways of ethnic-racial identity development (Nelson, et al. 2018). Other factors such as cultural differences, familial methods, and populations of school and home can all affect the development of racial-ethnic identity (Pahl and Way, 2006). However, there is still not enough that is known about which processes or factors during development can shape racial-ethnic identity. Given that racial-racial-ethnic identity is central to self-concept and psychological well-being, there is still a large gap of information in its development and change over time.

Ethnic-racial identity development occurs primarily during adolescence, a period of vital development, and one in which most individuals begin to explore their self-concept and identity (Craig-Bray, Adams, & Dobson, 1988). There are numerous factors that play a role in


there has been little to no research on the role of psychological factors such as mental distress or internalizing symptoms such as depression and anxiety. During adolescence especially,

individuals are more likely to internalize symptoms. Adolescence is a period of high social stress, during which the majority of teens may internalize negative symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and withdrawal (Jenness et al., 2019). If this happens, some adolescents may internalize symptoms to the point that they may never reach out and continue that exploration phase to explore their own racial and ethnic identity, to which point, the commitment and self-assurance phase can never be achieved.

While multiple studies have focused on peer socialization as a predictor for ethnic-racial identity, the current study seeks to explore how social relationships may serve as a mediator between internalizing symptoms and ethnic-racial identity. Two distinct forms of peer status have been identified in past developmental psychology literature; social preference and

popularity (Cillessen & Marks, 2011). Together, these constructs may capture the impact through which social relationships can influence the development of ethnic-racial identity. Social

preference is defined as the degree to which adolescents are liked by their peers, while popularity reflects the reputation of social power and visibility within the peer group. Social preference has been associated with more prosocial behavior and less friendship conflicts (Litwack, Aikins, & Cillessen, 2012). Internalized distress may affect the degree of social preference, leading


The current study hypothesizes that minority adolescents who report increased

internalized distress will have lower ethnic-racial identity at a later time point. The current study will analyze this relationship to examine how internalizing symptoms such as social anxiety and depression may predict both ethnic-racial identity commitment and exploration. In addition, this study will examine factors such as social preference and peer popularity as potential mediators for how internalized distress can affect the development of ethnic-racial identity over time.

Methods Participants

Participants were 112 adolescents enrolled in the ninth grade at the time of study onset. Of the participants, 58% identified as Latinx and 42% as African-American, with 54% of the participants being female.


Data collected from this study was taken from a larger longitudinal study examining peer relationships and adolescent health-risk behavior. Students in the 9th grade from three ethnically heterogeneous, public, rural high schools were recruited as part of a large-scale longitudinal study. The current study analyzed data collected from participants who completed data collection at two separate time points T1 and T4, which herein are referred as T1 and T2.


The first time point of data collection occurred during the spring of 9th grade, and the follow-up assessment was conducted two years later, during the fall of 11th grade.


Participants completed questionnaires at both time points T1 and T2. Students reported racial-ethnic identity at both time points, and reported depression, social anxiety, social

preference, and popularity at time T2. Data from both time points was used to analyze the relationship between internalizing symptoms and racial-ethnic identity over time.

Racial – Ethnic Identity. Data regarding participants’ racial ethnic identity exploration and commitment were obtained using the Multigroup Ethnic Identity Measure-Revised (Phinney & Ong, 2007). This scale contains 6 items that represent two different subscales: Commitment and Exploration. Commitment refers to strength of attachment to one’s own ethnic group. An example from the subscale is as follows: “I have a strong sense of belonging to my own ethnic group." Exploration refers to the degree to which an individual seeks information and

experiences relevant to one’s identity. One sample from the subscale is as follows: “I have often talked to other people in order to learn more about my ethnic group.” In both subscales,

participants respond on a scale from 1-4, with 1 being strongly disagree and 4 being strongly agree. Higher scores indicate higher degrees of commitment and exploration. This self-report is a reliable measure of racial-identity exploration and commitment (Phinney & Ong, 2007).


Negative Evaluation, consisting of 8 different items. Participants were asked to rate how closely their feelings aligned with statements such as; “I worry about what others say about me”. Higher scores indicated higher levels of social anxiety. The Social Anxiety Scale for Adolescents is a reliable and valid measure of social anxiety among adolescence (Ginsberg, La Greca, & Silverman, 1998).

Depression. Data regarding depressive symptoms was obtained using the Short Mood and Feelings Questionnaire (Angold et al., 1995). This scale contained 13 items that pertained to subjects’ depressive moods and behaviors. One such sample item is as follows: “I felt miserable or unhappy.” Participants responded to each item on a scale of 0-2, with 0 being not true and 2 being true. A mean score was computed, with higher scores indicating higher levels of

depressive symptoms. The Short Mood and Feelings questionnaire is a reliable and valid measure of depression among adolescence (Turner et al., 2014).

Social Preference. Data regarding social preference was obtained using peer

nominations. Participants were each presented with an alphabetized roster of their academic classmates and ask to select an unlimited number of peers that they “liked the most” and “liked the least”. The order of alphabetized names on the roster was counterbalanced (ordered Z through A) in order to control for possible effects of alphabetization on peer selection. A sum of the number of nominations each participant received from each item was computed and


sociometric nominations are considered the most reliable and social preference among peers (Coie & Dodge, 1983).

Popularity. Data regarding popularity was also obtained using peer nominations. Participants were presented with an alphabetized roster of their academic classmates and asked to select an unlimited number of peers that were “most popular” and “least popular”. A sum of the number of nominations each participant received from each item was computed and

standardized. A difference score between “most popular” and “least popular” nominations was then computed and restandardized, with greater scores representing a higher degree of popularity and lower scores indicating a lower degree of popularity.

Data Analyses

For preliminary analyses, descriptive statistics were analyzed and reported, with mean levels of racial ethnic identity, social anxiety, and depression calculated. Correlations were calculated between these variables.

For the primary analysis, hierarchical multiple regressions were calculated to test if internalizing symptoms such as depression and social anxiety are indeed associated with changes in racial-ethnic identity. Specifically, analyses sought to determine if social anxiety and

depression at time T1 predicted changes in racial-ethnic identity from T1 to T2. Two regressions were analyzed, both for commitment and exploration.


Results Preliminary Analyses

Means and standard deviations from the primary study variables are presented in Table 1. Measures of racial ethnic identity commitment and exploration, social anxiety, and depressive symptoms were measured at Time 1, and measures of racial ethnic identity were also reported at Time 2.

Pearson correlations were conducted in order to examine bivariate associations between variables (see Table 2). There was a significant negative correlation between social anxiety and both exploration and commitment of ethnic-racial identity at Time 2. There was also a significant negative correlation between depressive symptoms and ethnic-racial identity at Time 2,

suggesting that internalizing symptoms are related to development of ethnic-racial identity. In addition, there was a significant positive correlation between social anxiety and depressive symptoms. Low levels of stability were revealed for ethnic-identity commitment over time, while moderate levels of stability were revealed for ethnic-identity exploration.

Longitudinal Prediction of Ethnic-Racial Identity

A second set of analyses was conducted to examine internalizing symptoms such as social anxiety and depression as longitudinal predictors of ethnic-racial identity. Social

preference and popularity were analyzed as mediators to investigate the hypothesis regarding the combined effects social anxiety and depressive symptoms in predicting ethnic-racial identity.

The potential effects of social anxiety and depressive symptoms were examined


Results revealed that social anxiety was significantly prospectively associated with ethnic-racial identity commitment, but not exploration. Depressive symptoms were not

significantly associated with ethnic-racial identity commitment. Neither depressive symptoms nor social anxiety were significantly associated with ethnic-racial identity exploration. In addition, the addition of social preference and popularity during the third did not change the association between social anxiety and ethnic-racial identity.



results suggesting that internalized distress such as social anxiety may predict the development of ethnic-racial identity.

The current study supported the hypothesis that higher internalized stress is associated with lower ethnic-racial identity at Time 2 after controlling for ethnic-racial identity at Time 1. Specifically, social anxiety was significantly associated with lower ethnic-racial identity commitment at Time 2. Interestingly, depression was not significantly associated with ethnic-racial identity commitment at Time 2. This relationship could possibly be explained by the conflation of both social anxiety and depressive symptoms, as the two often co-occur, and previous studies have explored the potential of social anxiety as a precedent of depression in adolescence (Danneel, 2019). Phinney and Ong (2007) define ethnic identity commitment as a personal attachment, connection, or investment in a group and may represent greater acceptance and internalization of one’s ethnic identity. Standing theories of ethnic-racial identity

development maintain that development of ethnic identity often occurs in adolescence, after an individual has had an experience that creates a heightened awareness of race and ethnicity, such as discrimination (Phinney, 1989). Adolescents who have higher levels of social anxiety may be less likely to reach out to peers or others about ethnicity, hindering development of ethnic-racial identity, thereby leading to lower commitment and achievement of ethnic-racial identity. In addition, social anxiety may lead to withdrawal and feelings of uncertainty of one’s own attachment to ethnic-racial group.


symptoms such as depression and social anxiety. This could be due in part to the different natures by how exploration of identity may arise. Events such as peer victimization and

discrimination contribute to development of internalized distress as well as ethnic-racial identity. Some adolescents may be provoked to explore their ethnic identity after these experiences, while other might withdraw and explore less of their identity.

In addition, there was not a significant association between social preference and ethnic-racial identity commitment and exploration at Time 2. However, there was an almost significant (p=.056) association between popularity and ethnic-racial identity commitment at Time 2, which highlights another possible predictor of ethnic-racial identity. Adolescents who are more popular are more likely to interact with their peers, which in turn could lead to higher achievement and commitment of racial-ethnic identity.

Finally, there was no change in the association between social anxiety and ethnic-racial identity when the variables of social preference and popularity were added, thus there was no statistical support for social relationships as a mediator between internalized distress and ethnic-racial identity development. It is possible that internalizing symptoms could have affected ethnic-racial identity in ways not related to social relationships, such as self-concept.

Adolescents who display higher levels of internalized distress may have affected ideas of self-concept and identity, which can in turn impact development of ethnic-racial identity. However, more research is needed in order to determine the mechanisms through how internalizing symptoms may affect ethnic-racial identity.


Because little is known about how psychological distress may affect the development of ethnic-racial identity, the current study adds to the limited existing literature by examining how internalizing symptoms such as social anxiety and depression can predict lower racial-ethnic identity commitment and exploration. Adolescence is an important transitional period. It is during this time when identity develops, but it is also a time when individuals are under immense social and peer stressors. Because of the stressors and socialization that accompanies

adolescence, ethnic-racial identity is crucial to study and discuss during this stage of life. The development of a secure identity has been identified as an important milestone for adolescents and has been associated with positive outcomes for psychological well-being and mental health (Phinney, 1990). Different aspects of ethnic identity such as exploration and commitment have been associated with positive outcomes such as higher self-esteem, greater academic functioning, and protection against negative effects of discrimination and peer victimization. By better understanding how psychological distress may in turn affect the development of ethnic-racial identity, interventions can be created in order to strengthen minority adolescents’ ethnic-racial identity, and thus lead to better psychological benefits.



While social anxiety and depressive symptoms are two ways to measure internalized distress, they are not the only two constructs available. Internalizing symptoms can manifest in different ways, and social anxiety and depression do not cover the full range of measures for distress. The current study only analyzed the effect of social anxiety and depressive symptoms, but future studies should also examine other measures such as loneliness and withdrawal. It is still uncertain as to what particular aspects of internalized distress could impact ethnic-racial identity; therefore, it is necessary to analyze all symptoms instead of just depression and social anxiety.

Another limitation of the current study is that it only analyzed the ethnic-racial identity of Latinx and African-American populations. While both are significant minority populations, it remains to be seen whether the effects of social anxiety on ethnic-racial identity can be seen in other populations such as Asian-American and Native American adolescents. Cultural ideals can differ between different races and ethnicities, and that could affect attitudes on socialization as well as ethnic identity exploration. Strong cultural identity may serve as a protective buffer against internalized distress, and can also impact how ethnic-racial identity may develop. Thus, results may be different if participants were primarily from an Asian American or Native

American population. Because of this, the current study lacks a fully comprehensive view of how internalizing symptoms could influence ethnic-racial identity among adolescents of all races.


could have been overlooked. For instance, more frequent data collection could better capture how social anxiety and depression influenced adolescents’ ethnic-racial identity changed during the summer versus during the school year. In addition, effects that may not have been noticeable over a shorter time point could have been overlooked. Internalized symptoms may not have influenced ethnic-racial identity in a span of 18 months, but could possibly hindered

development of ethnic identity later on in life, such as in high school or college, when adolescents are still exploring and developing their identity.

The current study could have also been improved by including additional variables such as prior peer victimizations or discrimination events. When analyzing the data, it is important to note that all variables used were collected via self-report. One measure that could have been included is number of prior discrimination events. Adolescents’ ethnic-racial identity could depend on individual instances where they are pushed to explore their own ethnicity, and

discrimination is one such instance. In addition, another variable that could have been examined is the ethnic-racial makeup of the schools from which the participants were pulled.

Understanding how adolescents interact with their peers and what proportion of their peers is the same race as opposed to different race from them could have influenced the results. For example, it is likely that a minority adolescent that had same-race peers would feel more comfortable in exploring his own ethnic-racial identity than if he had peers of a different race than himself.


Not enough research exists to determine whether ethnic-racial identity can affect better mental health, or whether mental distress can affect ethnic-racial identity.

As previously mentioned, future studies should also analyze additional variables such as peer victimization and discrimination. Discrimination may either promote ethnic identity exploration, or may impede exploration by way of creating withdrawal and anxiety. By incorporating additional variables, further understanding can be gained of the mechanisms through which ethnic-racial identity is developed.



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Table 1. Means (and standard deviations) for Primary Variables at Time 1 - Time 2


Time 1

Ethnic-Identity Commitment 2.82 (.84)

Ethnic-Identity Exploration 2.47 (.87)

Social Anxiety 2.06 (1.04)

Depressive Symptoms .37 (.32)

Social Preference .37 (1.00)

Popularity .06 (.97)

Time 2

Ethnic-Identity Commitment 2.92 (.71)

Ethnic-Identity Exploration 2.55 (.86)


Table 2. Bivariate Associations Among Primary Variables

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Time 1

1. Ethnic-Identity Commitment

-2. Ethnic-Identity Exploration .48**

-Time 2

3. Ethnic-Identity Commitment .26** .05

-4. Ethnic-Identity Exploration .10 .42** .47**

-5. Social Anxiety -.06 -.11 -.33** -.25**

-6. Depressive Symptoms -.03 -.07 -.23** -.25** .67**

-7. Likeability .15 .06 -.04 -.01 -.09 -.13

-8. Popularity .15 .06 -.07 -.02 -.25** -.24** .58**


Table 3. Longitudinal Prediction of Ethnic-Racial Identity Commitment (self-report) by Depressive Symptoms and Anxiety

Time 2 Ethnic-Racial Identity (Commitment) ____________________________________________

Step Statistics Final Statistics __________________________ ______________

Predictors DR2 b (se b) b b (se b) b


Step 1 .07**

Time 1 Commit .22 (.08) .26** .23 (.07) .27**

Step 2 .10**

Social Anxiety -.21 (.08) -.30* -.23 (.08) -.33** Depressive Symptoms -.05 (.26) -.02 -.10 (.26) -.05

Step 3 .04

Social Preference .01 (.08) .01

Popularity -.16 (.08) -.21†

Total R2 .21**



Table 4. Longitudinal Prediction of Ethnic-Racial Identity Exploration (self-report) by Depressive

Symptoms and Anxiety

Time 2 Ethnic-Racial Identity (Exploration) ____________________________________________

Step Statistics Final Statistics __________________________ ______________

Predictors DR2 b (se b) b b (se b) b


Step 1 .17

Time 1 Commit .41 (.09) .42*** .39 (.08) .40***

Step 2 .05

Social Anxiety -.09 (.10) -.10 -.10 (.10) -.12

Depressive Symptoms -.39 (.30) -.15 -.43 (.31) -.16

Step 3 .01

Social Preference -.00 (.09) -.01 -.00 (.09) -.01

Popularity -.10 (.10) -.11 -.10 (.10) -.11

Total R2 .23






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