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This study examined the relationship between social support and the ability of Brazilian adolescents to adapt to life on the streets. Participants included thirty male street children in Rio de Janeiro. These youths, and a comparison group, were 13 to 18 years old. It was hypothesized that street children with more social support would adapt better to life on the streets. It was also hypothesized that street children with higher quality support would adapt better. Findings indicated that neither quantity nor quality of social support was related to adaptation. The implications of these findings with regard to the resiliency of street children are discussed.

The study of street children has increased as a result of their growing numbers in many cities throughout the world (Blanc, 1994; Rizzini & Lusk, 1995; Shinn & Weitzman, 1990). Although this has helped to reveal the extent of the problem, a clear picture of the developmental implications of growing up as a street child has yet to emerge. The basic assumption is that street children suffer developmentally and socially. Molnar, Rath, and Klein (1990) have indicated that such children are indeed at risk.

Identification of factors within the environment that make one child more able to survive on the streets than another can be of great value. For example, social support has been suggested as a mitigator of the negative effects of stressful events in street children's lives (Campos et al., 1994; Tyler, Tyler, Echeverry, & Zea, 1991; Westhoff, Coulter, McDermott, & Holcomb, 1995). In a study by Westhoff et al. (1995), over 90% of the street children reported having good social support available to them. Tyler et al. (1991) reported that level of social support predicted the psychosocial attributes of street children. Thus, the presence of supportive social networks may bolster street children's resiliency.

The purpose of the present study was to examine the relationship between social support and Brazilian adolescents' adaptation to life on the streets (defined as the ability to obtain food, to find shelter, and to grow normally). Specifically, it was hypothesized that street children with more social support (greater number of supportive persons) would adapt better to life on the streets. It was also hypothesized that street children with higher quality support would adapt better.



The convenience sample included 30 male street children from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, ranging from 13 to 18 years old (mean age was 15.6). Participants were recruited from the streets, where they were either selling candies or watching cars to earn money, as well as drawn from three facilities designed to help street children. Two of these were day facilities, offering food and activities (e.g., art, athletics, television). The other facility provided each child with a bed and four meals a day. Thus, the sample ranged from adolescents who were living on the street full-time to those living in a facility. They also had different levels of contact with family: some had no contact, while others worked on the street to supplement family income and maintained at least some contact with parents or other relatives.

A comparison group--30 males of similar age to the street children--was selected from local schools. They had an average Measure 10.1 years of formal schooling, while the street children had 4.6 years.


An instrument measuring adaptation--Ability to Adapt to Life on the Streets (AALS)--was developed by the authors for this study. The AALS has three components: (a) ability to obtain food, (b) ability to find shelter, and (c) ability to grow normally. Scores on these three were summed to produce a total AALS score.

Ability to obtain food. The daily food intake of subjects, as well as the extent to which preference, cost, preparation, and storage influenced intake, was assessed. This assessment was based on the food guide pyramid (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1992), which has six food groups: (a) bread, cereal, rice, and pasta (grains); (b) vegetables; (c) fruits; (d) meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs, and nuts; (e) dairy products; and (f) fats, oils, and sweets. The adolescents were asked how much of each food in these groups they ate on a typical day. They were shown food illustrations, as well as models of portion sizes, not only to help them identify food types, but also to obtain information on servings. Intake was compared against pyramid guidelines to determine adequacy of diet. This measure of dietary adequacy has been validated in previous studies (Guthrie & Scheer, as cited in Zeman & Ney, 1996).

The average energy allowance used here was 45 kcal/kg, because it represents the standard for males ranging from 15 to 18 years old (Food and Nutrition Board, 1989). (Subjects in this study ranged from 13 to 18 years old; therefore, it seemed more appropriate to use the 15-18 age group as a reference, rather than the 11-14 age group.) Once the energy allowance (calorie level) was estimated, it was possible to determine the optimum serving sizes that the adolescents should consume of each food group in the nutritional pyramid (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1992). Street children differed from non-street children in terms of caloric needs. The calorie levels chosen to determine appropriate food servings were 2,200 calories for the street children and 2,800 for the non-street children. Thus, the optimum number of servings from each food group, except for dairy products, was different for the two samples of adolescents.

Scores were assigned across the five food groups (0 = 0 servings, 1 = below optimum number of servings, 2 = above optimum number of servings, and 3 = optimum number of servings). The five scores were summed, providing an overall score that indicated ability to obtain food.

Ability to find shelter. Adolescents were asked how often, in a 1-week period, they were unable to find shelter. Scores ranged from 0 to 7, reflecting the number of days they succeeded in finding a place to sleep. Information on the type of shelter usually found was then obtained, along with the level of risk associated with each kind of shelter reported. This was accomplished by asking them to rate how safe they felt on a 5-point scale (ranging from very unsafe to very safe).

Ability to grow normally. Height and weight were measured and body mass index (BMI) was computed (weight in kilograms divided by squared height in meters). BMI was then compared with Brazilian national standards by age. Optimum BMI was subtracted from actual BMI to produce the score for ability to grow normally.

Social support. The 21-item Social Support Questionnaire (SSQ; Sarason, Sarason, Shearin, & Pierce, 1987) asks respondents to list the people who can be relied on under certain circumstances, and to indicate how satisfied they are with this social support. Examples of questions are: "Whom can you really count on to help you feel better when you are feeling generally down in the dumps?" and "Whom can you count on to console you when you are very upset?" Sarason et al. (1983) examined the reliability and validity of the SSQ and found excellent internal consistency (alpha = .97) and stability over four weeks (r = .90). The test-retest correlation for support network size and support satisfaction were .90 and .83, respectively.

Quality of social support was also assessed. Four aspects of support quality were considered: (a) companionship, (b) emotional support, (c) practical assistance, and (d) physical safety. After completing the SSQ, adolescents were asked to rate the persons who provided the most help or support--maximum of three--in terms of these four aspects.


Participation was voluntary, and the adolescents were assured of the confidentiality of their responses. Those who were approached on the street were provided with food and soft drinks in order to compensate them for the time spent answering the questionnaire. Participants were seen individually.


Of the 30 street children, 26.7% reported not having a residence. It is important to note, however, that many considered the facilities that provided them with assistance to be their residences. Street children reported finding shelter a mean of 4.6 times in a 1-week period, while a large majority of non-street children (86.7%) had a place to sleep 7 days a week (mean = 6.8).

Although non-street children reported seeing their families every day, street children varied greatly with regard to family contact. Thirty-three percent of the street children had no contact at all with their families, and 20% reported seeing their families daily. Eighty percent of the street children were not living with either parent.

It was hypothesized that street children with a greater number of supportive persons would demonstrate better adaptation. A one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) was used to compare subgroups (low, medium, and high number of supportive persons) regarding ability to adapt to life on the streets. No significant differences were found, F(2, 27) = 2.73, p [less than] .83.

The second hypothesis was that street children with higher quality social support would show greater adaptation. Those with low, medium, and high quality of support were compared. No significant differences were found, F(2, 27) = 2.01, p [less than] .153.

The street children had significantly less contact with their families than did the adolescents in the comparison group, F(1, 58) = 56.67, p [less than].001. In addition, street children had significantly fewer adults in their households than did non-street children, F(1, 58) = 39.40, p [less than].001. Further, street children cited significantly fewer family members as sources of social support than did non-street children, F(1, 58) = 22.90, p [less than].001.

No significant differences were found between the two groups regarding their overall ability to obtain food, F(1, 58) = 1.11, p .297. However, there were significant differences in terms of two types of foods. Street children consumed more servings of grains (mean 1.93) than did those in the comparison group (mean = 1.63), F(1, 58) 5.28, p = .025. (It is important to note that the scores take into account recommended energy intake for each group, with the optimum number of servings of each food differing for street and non-street children, except for dairy products.) Non-street children consumed more servings of dairy products (mean = 1.93) than did street children (mean = 1.27), F(1, 58) = 13.94, p [less than].001.

Finally, non-street children had higher BMI (mean = 21.19) than did street children (mean = 15.54), F(1, 58) = 5.06, p = .028. In addition, when ability to grow normally was computed, it was found that non-street children had higher scores than did street children, F(1, 58) = 6.44, p = .014.


As in earlier research, it was found here that the majority of street children maintain contact with their families, seeing them at least on an occasional basis (Aptekar, 1994; Connolly, 1990; Rizzini & Lusk, 1995; Westhoff, Coulter, McDermott, & Holcomb, 1995). However, street children in this study were found to have fewer adults in their households as compared with non-street children, suggesting not only parental absence but also lack of adequate role models. Campos et al. (1994) also reported that Brazilian street children tend to lack stable adult figures in their lives.

Previous studies have noted that obtaining food is one of the survival tasks faced by street children (Koegel, Burnam, & Farr, 1990). Indeed, malnutrition is often associated with life on the streets (Pinto et al., 1994; Wright, 1990). Although street children in the present investigation had significantly lower BMI than did non-street children, they were able to obtain food as well as non-street children. In fact, the street children consumed more daily servings of grains (but fewer of dairy products) than did the non-street children. One possible explanation for these findings is that the street children tended to think more about the cost of what they ate and how they were going to store it than did those in the comparison group (in general, grains are not only less expensive than dairy products, but also do not spoil easily). It is also important to note that the large majority of street children were receiving assistance at three facilities. These facilities may have been providing street children with adequate amounts of some foods while neglecting others (i.e., dairy products) because of their expense.

Neither quantity nor quality of social support was related to street children's adaptation. These findings suggest that if social support plays a role in the ability to adapt to life on the streets, different measures are needed to explain its influence (Pinto et al., 1994; Wright, 1990).

This study focused on street children's basic needs, such as food and shelter. Apparently, adults in Brazil are inclined to meet these needs, though they may not regard additional social involvement as necessary. Overall, it seems that social support, as defined in this study, may be less critical for street children's resiliency, at least during adolescence.

Renata C. D'Abreu and Laura R. Cook, Department of Family and Child Sciences, Florida State University.


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Author:D'Abreu, Renata C.; Mullis, Ann K.; Cook, Laura R.
Geographic Code:3BRAZ
Date:Dec 22, 1999

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