Negative self-image of adolescents fosters increasingly damaging behaviors

Adolescents who think little of themselves tend to shy away from interactions with peers. This uncertainty and withdrawal then draws negative feedback from other students, prompting even more withdrawal and leaving them with few chances to have close friends and as targets for teasing or bullying.

Such are the findings of a comprehensive yearlong study led by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and published in the July/August issue of the journal Child Development. The study looked closely at three time periods in the lives of 605 fifth and sixth graders in a Midwest school district, particularly at how the youth and their peer groups mutually influenced each other.

“Our findings have important implications for understanding how both youth and their social worlds influence the course of children’s relationships,” said principal investigator Karen Rudolph, a professor of psychology at Illinois.

“Unfortunately, youth may enter into self-perpetuating cycles that result in a downward spiral of relationship difficulties,” she said. “Intervening in these downward spirals and improving youths’ relationships will require both helping youth to change their perceptions of their social abilities and worth, as well as helping schools to change the peer environments that permit social isolation, peer conflict and victimization.”

The adolescents participated in three assessments during the study, each about six months apart. Girls and boys were equally represented, and 33 percent were from minority groups. The adolescents were asked about their self-views and experiences of stress in peer relationships. Teachers were queried about the adolescents’ display of helpless, withdrawn, and prosocial behaviors with peers.
The researchers focused on how the youths’ beliefs about their social self-worth and self-efficacy affected their behavior and experiences in the peer group, and how these experiences then influenced the youths’ future behavior and beliefs.

The results confirmed the researchers expectations about downward social cycles, suggesting that early intervention is needed to improve peer interactions in schools, Rudolph said. “Understanding why some youth experience chronic difficulties in their peer relationships is critically important for learning how to prevent some of the negative consequences associated with isolation, rejection, and victimization by peers.”

The National Institute of Mental Health partially funded the study through a grant to Rudolph. The study also was supported by a University of Illinois Research Board Beckman Award and a William T. Grant Foundation Faculty Scholars Award.

Other researchers participating in the study were Melissa S. Caldwell, a doctoral student in psychology at Illinois, Wendy Troop-Gordon of North Dakota State University and Do-Yeong Kim of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.

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Jim Barlow University of Illinois

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