15 March 2017

Jaap Nieuwenhuis on the research project Resilence and vulnerability in young people

Resilient young people in disadvantaged neighbourhoods

For urban geographer Jaap Nieuwenhuis, the research theme Dynamics of Youth was the ideal opportunity to combine his work with that of Youth & Family researchers: “My research deals with the neighbourhood’s effects on young people. Does a ‘bad’, or stressful neighbourhood in which some young people grow up have an influence on problem behaviour later in life?” By combining his own knowledge with insights from the field of Education & Pedagogy, Nieuwenhuis not only examines the neighbourhood itself, but also the young peoples’ personal characteristics.

Nieuwenhuis and his colleagues are finding more and more evidence that the neighbourhood where you grow up is not the only determining factor of whether you have problems later in life, but also your personality and biological characteristics. “It’s a combination of the neighbourhood and your personal and biological characteristics, so it’s not the one or the other, but an interplay between them.”

Time to demolish neighbourhood policies?

The combination of the two vastly different fields of study is not only exciting. “It also contributes a lot to the quality of our research. The literature on neighbourhood effects is often very generalistic. By adding personality and biological aspects of young people, you come to completely different conclusions.” In so doing, Nieuwenhuis also highlights the relevance of his research to society. “Neighbourhood policy is often made based on that generalistic literature. The problem with such a general policy is that it probably only works for a certain group of young people. It doesn’t reach everyone.” With these new insights by Nieuwenhuis and his colleagues, interventions at the neighbourhood level can be fine-tuned.

Stress hormone has a say

How did you come to these conclusions? “We looked at factors such as cortisol - better known as the ‘stress hormone’ - in the body. Does the production of cortisol say something about how young people react to stress? Because we have defined the neighbourhood where they live as a stressful environment.” Higher or lower levels of cortisone is an indication that the body is reacting to stress. It is also an indication that the individual is more- or less capable of dealing with a stressful environment, such as their bad neighbourhood. The suspicion of Nieuwenhuis and his colleagues was confirmed: young people with higher levels of cortisone experience more problems from their stressful neighbourhood.

Young people with higher levels of cortisone experience more problems from their stressful neighbourhood.

But what does that mean, exactly? “Our hypothesis was not that the cortisol itself would have an effect on problem behaviour later in life, but that the cortisol is a factor in the body and has an influence on how you react.” The study doesn’t stop at measuring cortisol, however; the researchers also study the influence of personality and genetic factors. “We measure the degree of the connection between the neighbourhood and any problem behaviour later in life. The study is not yet finished, but we can tentatively say that young people with some degree of resilience are better at dealing with stress from the neighbourhood.”  This means that resilient young people know in which situations they must take action or keep calm. However, some young people with less resilient personalities are more likely to display fear or withdrawal. while others may become more impulsive or chaotic.

Unique dataset

But how was Nieuwenhuis able to make a conclusion about young people and problem behaviour later in life in such a short time frame? Has he been conducting this research for a longer period? Nieuwenhuis: “No, we used an existing dataset, that contains information on more than 1,000 young people from the province of Utrecht, who were followed for several years into adulthood. To me, the neighbourhood-related data were most interesting, but the dataset wasn’t sorted by neighbourhood. What it did contain was the young subjects’ addresses.” By linking these addresses to data from the CBS register, Nieuwenhuis created a unique new set of data that clarified whether the young people had grown up in a stressful neighbourhood. 

Jaap Nieuwenhuis (UU and TU Delft) collaborates in this project together with Susan Branje, Pieter Hooimeijer  and Rongqin Yu (University of Oxford).

Dynamics of Youth

Resilence and vulnerability in young people is a seed money project of Dynamics of Youth, one of the four Strategic Themes of Utrecht University. Dynamics of Youth connects excellent child and youth research from all seven faculties, and looks for the answer to a crucial question for future generations: how can we help our children with their development into well-balanced individuals who can successfully hold their own in a rapidly changing environment?