Rejection sensitivity in adolescent girls: How it affects relationships


rejectionPurdie, V., & Downey, G. (2000). Rejection sensitivity and adolescent girls’ vulnerability to relationship-centered difficulties. Child Maltreatment, 5 (4), 338-349.


Many difficulties experienced by adolescent girls are relationship centered. Some involve struggles with teachers. More often, they revolve around romantic relationships and may range from jealousy and other interpersonal struggles to dating violence and relationship related depression (Downey, Bonica, & Rincon, 1999).  Other girls are much more confident in their relationships. The current study aims to determine the psychological processes that lead to this relationship-centered vulnerability in some adolescent girls.

What is Rejection Sensitivity?

  • Rejection sensitivity (RS) –  is the tendency  “to defensively expect, readily perceive, and intensely react to rejection,” meaning that those who are rejection sensitive have heightened expectations of rejection in their relationships and are thus ready to both cognitively and emotionally overreact to rejection
  • This tendency to expect and interpret rejection, particularly when combined with anxious anticipation, can compromise the quality of important relationship

The current study aimed to determine the psychological processes that lead to this relationship-centered vulnerability in some adolescent girls.


This study drew data from a larger prospective study on risk and protective factors in childhood and adolescence. This specific study examined 154 girls (grades 7-9). The girls completed a survey on sensitivity to rejection from both peers and teachers at the onset of the study; the survey examined different types of responses to rejection: (a) anxious and angry expectations of rejection and (b) angry and victimized reactions following an ambiguously intentioned rejection. One year later, the girls were interviewed regarding their dating relationships, specifically examining dating behavior, attitudes toward romantic relationships, conflict tactics and efforts to prevent rejection by partners.


Defensive rejection expectations:

  • Girls reporting high anxious and/or angry RS expectations were more worried that “their partner would betray them,” or “was interested in someone else” and felt “upset and uncomfortable when their partner did things that did not involve them”
  • Only girls high in anxious RS reported “always wanting to know where the partner was and what he was doing”

Reactions to rejections:

  • The extent to which girls reported angry or victimized reaction patterns following rejection, they also endorsed all of the same relationship insecurities and concerns as the girls with high RS expectations

Efforts to prevent the occurrence of rejection:

  • RS may prompt teen girls to engage in potentially risky behaviors  (early sex, substance use, truancy, shoplifting, etc.) to avoid the rejection of their romantic partner
  • Both those with anxious and angry rejection expectations frequently endorse the statement, “I would do anything to keep my boyfriend with me even if it’s things that I know are wrong.”

RS and conflict tactics:

  • issues with jealousy (66%) and cheating (10%) were the major argument topics; physical fights were infrequent (10%)
  • both anxious and angry rejection expectations and angry and victimized reactions were associated with being the victim of direct hostility and enacting hostile withdrawal

Conclusions and Implications:

This study supports the idea that sensitivity to rejection from one’s peers and teachers can increase a teen girls risk for subsequent relationship-centered difficulties.  Specifically, this study examined defensive rejection expectations and intense rejection reactions and found that both tendencies are associated with a myriad of relational insecurities and concerns. This tendency of high RS is a risk factor for the onset of both emotional and physical abuse in romantic relationships, and thus, points to early adolescence as a key point of intervention.  High RS has also been related to heightened depression in college women (Downey, Freitas, et al., 1998).  Given that sensitivity to rejection is typically first manifest in relationships with important adults (i.e., parents and teachers), a quality mentoring relationship with a caring adult has the potential to provide a context in which teen girls can feel cared for and supported. This nurturing relationship has the potential to help alter the teen girl’s defensive rejection expectations before they translate into  intense rejection reactions in the form of risky behaviors and other associated difficulties in their future romantic relationships.

This article was summarized by UMB doctoral student Laura Yoviene