More social anxiety after young teens rejected by dad

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Teens who face rejection by their fathers tend to experience more social anxiety—and more loneliness—later on, research shows.

“We might be overlooking the family as an important piece of cultivating these healthy peer relationships…”

The study—conducted by Hio Wa “Grace” Mak, doctoral student of human development and family studies at Penn State—examines how parental rejection, as well as the overall well-being of the family unit, were related to changes in adolescents’ social anxiety, friendships, and feelings of loneliness over time.

“We found that father rejection predicted increases in adolescents’ social anxiety, even when we controlled for social anxiety at an earlier time. In turn, this predicted increases in loneliness later on,” says Mak.

“This suggests that fathers’ rejecting attitudes toward their adolescent children may make them more nervous about approaching social situations, which in turn is related to more social isolation and feelings of loneliness,” she explains.

Forming and maintaining good relationships is essential to an adolescent’s well-being, according to the researchers. Previous studies have shown that adolescents with thriving social lives tend to be more psychologically healthy, while those that struggle with forming good friendships tend to perform worse academically and suffer from more depressive symptoms.

“Adolescents’ success in forming positive, close relationships is such an important feature of that developmental period,” says Gregory Fosco, associate professor of human development and family studies. “These relationships help them achieve a sense of independence and to explore their identity and the world around them.”

The researchers say that social anxiety is one possible threat to adolescents’ social development. This type of anxiety stems from the fear of negative judgment from peers, and the tendency to avoid social relationships or endure them with distress.

Junior high

Mak says they were interested in learning more about how parental rejection and family climate affected a child’s friendship quality and loneliness through social anxiety.

The researchers focused on 687 families comprised of a mother, father, and adolescent child. They looked at families at three time points—when the child was in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades—which allowed them to study development over time.

At each time point, the researchers measured mother and father rejection separately by asking each parent about their feelings of love, distrust, and dissatisfaction with their child. The parents also answered questions about the overall family climate, and the adolescent reported their feelings of social anxiety, friendship quality, and loneliness.

After analyzing the data, Fosco says they found that all three aspects—mother rejection, father rejection, and the overall family climate—predicted changes in the adolescent’s peer relationship quality and loneliness. He says that in general, parental rejection was associated with poorer social adjustment, and a more positive family climate resulted in better friendship quality and less loneliness.

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Mak says they also found that a father’s rejection in sixth grade was associated with increases in social anxiety when the adolescent was in seventh grade. Additionally, they found social anxiety in seventh grade predicted increases in loneliness in eighth grade.

“We found that mother rejection, father rejection, and the overall family climate all affect adolescents’ friendship quality and loneliness,” says Mak. “Additionally, we found that father rejection, but not mother rejection, predicted changes in social anxiety. Fathers aren’t usually included in family research, so it’s important to know more about fathers and how they influence adolescent friendship and loneliness.”

Better interventions

According to the researchers, these findings can help guide better intervention strategies including helping adolescents with social anxiety and reinforcing the importance of the father and child relationship.

“Often, when we try to intervene and help promote positive peer relationships, we focus on the school setting, where a lot of these friendships are taking place,” Fosco says. “I think these findings suggest that we should also reach out to families to help them support this sense of belonging and connection. We might be overlooking the family as an important piece of cultivating these healthy peer relationships,” he says.

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The researchers report their findings in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence.

Mark Feinberg, research professor of health and human development, is also a coauthor of the paper. The National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and the Karl R. and Diane Wendle Fink Early Career Professorship for the Study of Families supported the research.

Source: Penn State