How close relationships can help teens manage rejection

Screen Shot 2013-02-18 at 7.35.19 AMMcDonald, Bowker, Rubin, Laursen & Duchene (2010). Interactions between rejection sensitivity and supportive relationships in the prediction of adolescents’ internalizing difficulties. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 39, 563-574.

Summarized by Stella Kanchewa, MA, University of Massachusetts at Boston Clinical Psychology student.

In adolescence, young people must learn to contend with increasingly complex social worlds and navigate a wider array of interpersonal interactions. Research by McDonald and colleagues examines the role that supportive relationships with parents and peers play in helping adolescents cope with a highly challenging relational experience – rejection. Previous research has found that some youth, based on prior relational experiences, are more highly sensitive to rejection and can develop depressive and anxious symptoms in response to it. In the current study, researchers explore the relationships between experiences of rejection sensitivity and internalizing symptoms including depression and anxiety, and the role of supportive relationships within these experiences. Rejection sensitivity is “conceptualized as an individual’s tendency to expect rejection from others and to overreact to possible rejection experiences,” (p. 564). Individuals have affective reactions to experiences of rejection, and while some may respond with anxiety others may respond with anger. In this study, researchers considered both responses.

Method: The current study included 227 racially and ethnically diverse adolescents who were part of a subsample drawn from a longitudinal study on school transitions and close relationships. The average age of youth in the current study was 14.3 years old. Youth completed either paper-based or online-based questionnaires in the spring of their 9th grade year. The questionnaires were comprised of measures of social support from parents (mother and father were assessed separately) and friends, and measures of psychological well-being.
Results: Support from both friends and parents moderated the relationship between both anxious and angry rejection sensitivity, and symptoms of depression and social anxiety.
• Depressive symptoms
o For adolescents with low levels of support from friends, having anxious rejection sensitivity was related to depressive symptoms
o Having angry rejection sensitivity was related to depressive symptoms, but only for adolescents who had low support from both friends and parents.
• Social Anxiety symptoms
o For adolescents with unsupportive friendships, having high support from their parents was associated with higher symptoms of social anxiety
o Having angry rejection sensitivity was related to social anxiety, but only for adolescents with high friend support

Conclusion: In this study supportive relationships with friends and parents were linked with adolescents’ experience of depressive and anxious symptoms stemming from heightened rejection sensitivity. Further, the researchers’ found that support from both friends and parents mattered indicating that friendships and parent-adolescent relationships work together to support youth adjustment.

The findings from this study have implications for youth mentoring, specifically the potential of relationships with mentors in mitigating experiences of rejection sensitivity, and subsequent symptoms of depression and anxiety. Quality relationships that are close and supportive, particularly when the mentor becomes a significant adult within the adolescent’s social network, may provide youth with social assurance in the face of negative social expectations and challenges. Discussion of these challenges within mentor training could better equip mentors to support youth around difficult social interactions, particularly during developmental transitions such as the transition to middle or high school.