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Temperament, Peer Relationships, and Social Anxiety in Teens

Competence with peers and close friendships may matter more for fearful youth

Key points

  • Behavioral inhibition is characterized by fear or reticence in response to new people and situations.
  • Nearly half of behaviorally inhibited youth develop social anxiety disorder.
  • There are many protective factors that lower risk for development of anxiety.
  • Our research shows that relationships with close peers are important factors to consider.
Alina Solovyova-Vincent / istock
Source: Alina Solovyova-Vincent / istock

Rates of anxiety and depression increase dramatically during adolescence. This historical pattern has been compounded by unprecedented population-level increases in anxiety and depression during and since the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, this is a major concern among parents and the public.

We already know that when symptoms emerge and increase during adolescence they are associated with poorer functioning across the lifespan. This makes adolescence an especially important time to study and identify youth at greatest risk. So, what can we do? The focus of our work in our Emotion Development Lab is to understand how these problems unfold across development, which is essential to informing early detection and prevention efforts.

Over the last several decades, psychologists have identified temperament as one of the earliest-emerging predictors of later mental health problems. Temperament refers to a child’s biologically based tendencies related to activity, emotional reactivity, and self-regulation. Temperament can be observed and measured as early as infancy and is thought by most to be relatively stable across development. One temperamental profile that has been widely studied is that of behavioral inhibition (BI), which is characterized by fear or reticence in response to new people or situations — perhaps colloquially known as being “shy." For example, a child who is behaviorally inhibited would be very hesitant to approach an unfamiliar peer at a playground and might resist engaging in new activities. BI has been linked to the emergence of social anxiety in particular, with over 40 percent of BI youth developing social anxiety disorder as adolescents. However, a large proportion of inhibited youth do not develop social anxiety, which tells us that there are other risk or protective factors.

One of the hallmark features of adolescence is the shift from parents to peers as one's dominant social force; peers become increasingly salient and motivating. As such, peers likely play a role in increasing or decreasing risk for social anxiety among BI youth; this was the focus of a recent study in our lab. In this study, we asked youth to report their perceived support from and negative interactions with their close peers (i.e., friends, romantic partners) and family. Supportive interactions included experiences such as companionship, nurturance, and affection, and negative interactions included conflict and antagonism. We found that when youth reported high support from friends this was associated with higher social-anxiety symptoms for the BI youth. Consistent with other research on friendships among BI children, BI adolescents may be more likely to befriend other BI or shy adolescents which may entrench and reinforce social withdrawal or isolation. In addition, the quantity of friends and self-reported competence in friendships linked BI and social anxiety symptoms. BI was associated with fewer friends and lower perceived competence in friendships which then predicted more social anxiety symptoms.

Our findings reveal that BI youth’s relationships with their close peers are important factors to consider in the development of social anxiety symptoms during adolescence. In addition, they suggest that targeting peer relationships may be an important avenue for intervention. For example, interventions that focus on social skills for establishing and maintaining friendships and that facilitate friendships between peers of different temperaments could help to mitigate social anxiety risk. By continuing to examine these developmental pathways, we hope to do our part in advancing the knowledge and research of adolescent mental health that reduces the burden of these difficulties on children and families.

Maddie Politte-Corn, M.Ed., is a second-year graduate student in the Emotion Development Lab, pursuing a dual-title Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology and Social Behavioral Neuroscience, with a certificate in Clinical and Translational Science. Her research interests center on the intersection of neurobiological vulnerabilities and social experiences in the development of adolescent anxiety and depression.


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