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Rejection Sensitivity in Childhood and Early Adolescence: Peer Rejection and Protective Effects of Parents and Friends

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Theory suggests that rejection sensitivity, a social cognitive processing style characterised by anxious and angry expectations of rejection, develops from experiences of rejection or acceptance by others. The purpose of this study of 417 children and early adolescents (age 9 to 13) was to examine how relationship experiences are directly and interactively associated with their rejection sensitivity. In a multivariate analysis, there was an association of rejection by parents and by peers with rejection sensitivity, with a stronger association between peer rejection and sensitivity than between parent rejection and sensitivity. Regarding interactive effects, peer rejection was found to have a strong association with rejection sensitivity among participants with low or high parent acceptance, and among those with high friendship satisfaction. Yet, there was evidence of a stronger association between peer rejection and rejection sensitivity among those with low parent acceptance or high friendship quality. This was because rejection sensitivity was highest when peer rejection was high and parent acceptance was low, and sensitivity was lowest when peer rejection was low and friendship quality was high. Findings show how young people's relationships in different domains uniquely co-vary with rejection sensitivity and interact in accounting for angry and anxious expectations of rejection by others. Yes Yes
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McLachlan, J., Zimmer-Gembeck, M.J., & McGregor, L. (2010). Rejection sensitivity in childhood and early adolescence: Peer rejection
and protective effects of parents and friends. Journal of Relationships Research, 1, 31–40, DOI 10.1375/jrr.1.1.31
ADDRESS FOR CORRESPONDENCE: Melanie J. Zimmer-
Gembeck, Griffith University, School of Psychology, Griffith
University QLD 4222, Australia. E-mail: m.zimmer-gembeck@
griffith.edu.au
Close relationships and social groups are important for
biological and psychological security and wellbeing
(Baumeister & Leary, 1995) and rejection is particularly
aversive and distressing (Leary, 2001). For children and
adolescents, parent support is one important context of
security that has been associated with many positive
outcomes, such as high academic achievement and self-
esteem (Doyle & Markiewicz, 2005; Maccoby, 1980;
Milevsky, Schlechter, Netter, & Keehn, 2007), whereas
many adjustment problems have been associated with
rejecting or hostile parenting behaviours (e.g., Chang,
Schwartz, Dodge, & McBride-Chang, 2003; Khaleque
& Rohner, 2002). Relationships with peers can also be
quite important. During middle childhood, intimacy
and companionship increases with peers, and children
increasingly rely on peers for a sense of belonging
(Laursen, 1996). At this time of life, peer relationship
difficulties such as rejection and exclusion have been
associated with internalising problems, including loneli-
ness and depression (Crick & Grotpeter, 1995;
Zimmer-Gembeck, Hunter, & Pronk, 2007).
Young people’s conceptions of relationships and
their developing interpretations and responses to others
have been proposed as some of the mechanisms
accounting for associations between such negative social
experiences and personal adjustment. For example,
when rejection occurs within valued relationships with
others, such as by parents or among peers at school, this
can affect individuals’ conceptions of relationships and
Rejection Sensitivity in Childhood and Early
Adolescence: Peer Rejection and Protective
Effects of Parents and Friends
Julie McLachlan, Melanie J. Zimmer-Gembeck and Leanne McGregor
Griffith University and Griffith Health Institute, Australia
Theory suggests that rejection sensitivity, a social cognitive processing style characterised by anxious and
angry expectations of rejection, develops from experiences of rejection or acceptance by others. The
purpose of this study of 417 children and early adolescents (age 9 to 13) was to examine how relationship
experiences are directly and interactively associated with their rejection sensitivity. In a multivariate analysis,
there was an association of rejection by parents and by peers with rejection sensitivity, with a stronger
association between peer rejection and sensitivity than between parent rejection and sensitivity. Regarding
interactive effects, peer rejection was found to have a strong association with rejection sensitivity among
participants with low or high parent acceptance, and among those with high friendship satisfaction. Yet,
there was evidence of a stronger association between peer rejection and rejection sensitivity among those
with low parent acceptance or high friendship quality. This was because rejection sensitivity was highest
when peer rejection was high and parent acceptance was low, and sensitivity was lowest when peer rejec-
tion was low and friendship quality was high. Findings show how young people’s relationships in different
domains uniquely co-vary with rejection sensitivity and interact in accounting for angry and anxious expec-
tations of rejection by others.
Keywords: peer rejection, rejection sensitivity, parent–child relationships, friendship, early adolescence
ARTICLE AVAILABLE ONLINE
Journal of Relationships Research
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JULIE MCLACHLAN, MELANIE J. ZIMMER-GEMBECK AND LEANNE MCGREGOR
Journal of Relationships Research
their expectations of others, especially during childhood.
Some of these conceptions have been referred to as rejec-
tion sensitivity, which is usually defined as anxious
expectations of rejection and the tendency to readily per-
ceive and overreact to it (Downey & Feldman, 1996).
When considered from this social cognitive perspective,
rejection sensitivity identifies the types of social cues that
will receive attention and the likelihood that an interper-
sonal interaction will be perceived as a ‘rejection’
(Downey, Khouri, & Feldman, 1997).
Most research on rejection sensitivity has focused on
the negative correlates of being highly sensitive to rejec-
tion in later adolescence or adulthood, such as depressive
affect and aggression. Rejection sensitivity has been
shown to have negative consequences over and above the
impact of actual rejection experiences (e.g., Sandstrom,
Cillessen, & Eisenhower, 2003), including impacting on
loneliness, depression, aggression, dating violence, and
relationship breakdown (Ayduk, Downey, & Kim, 2001;
Downey, Feldman, & Ayduk, 2000; Levy, Ayduk, &
Downey, 2001; Zimmer-Gembeck & Wright, 2007).
However, an important aspect of rejection sensitivity
theory suggests that acute and/or prolonged rejection
experiences instigate rejection sensitivity (e.g., see
Downey, Bonica, & Rincon, 1999). Research on social
experiences that may give rise to individual differences in
rejection sensitivity or may protect against it, however,
has lagged behind research on the negative mental health
and social–relational outcomes of sensitivity.
The purpose of the current study was to examine
children’s and early adolescents’ rejection sensitivity as
related to parental rejection, peer rejection, parental
acceptance, and friendship satisfaction. One particular
focus was on examining interactions between experi-
ences in different social–relational domains to test
whether good relationships in one domain (e.g., accept-
ance by parents or a satisfying friendship) may protect
against sensitivity in the face of rejection in another
domain. This study also is unique because of its inclu-
sion of children and early adolescents (ages 9 to 13
years), a time of life when peer relationships are becom-
ing very important (Laursen, 1996).
Social-Relational Experiences During Early
Adolescence and Rejection Sensitivity
Theory emerged in the 1990s to suggest that rejection
sensitivity is a correlate of experiences of low acceptance
and/or rejection by others in childhood (e.g., Downey
et al., 1999). In this theory, Downey and colleagues
drew on attachment theory within an ecological frame-
work and proposed that sensitivity to rejection is
internalised from early experiences of rejection from
others (see also Levy et al., 2001). Furthermore, utilis-
ing a social cognitive framework, rejection sensitivity
was described as one process that follows from early
experiences and affects the processing of social informa-
tion in current and future situations (Feldman &
Downey, 1994). Therefore, rejection sensitivity is
described as a process that mediates the link between
early relational experiences and responses to current sit-
uations (Feldman & Downey). More specifically,
Feldman and Downey identified a history of parental
and peer rejection, and the combination of the two as
the potential precursors to rejection sensitivity. When
this is considered within a social cognitive approach, it
is expected that rejection sensitivity shapes coding
strategies, expectations, values and self-regulatory plans
that individuals bring to new situations.
Some research has examined associations between
parent–child relationships and rejection sensitivity. In
one of the early studies testing the theoretical underpin-
nings of rejection sensitivity, adults who retrospectively
reported childhood violence were found to be more
likely to anxiously expect rejection in adulthood than
those who were not exposed (Feldman & Downey,
1994). In another study, higher levels of parental
neglect during childhood were associated with more
rejection sensitivity in adulthood (Downey et al.,
1997). Yet, because of the reliance on retrospective
reports of parent–child relationships, this leaves only
one previous study that has investigated contemporane-
ous associations between children’s or early adolescents’
experiences of rejection by parents and rejection sensi-
tivity. In this study, children who reported more
parental rejecting behaviours responded to vignettes
with more angry expectations of rejection from their
peers and teachers over the following year (Downey,
Lebolt, & Rincon, 1995).
We located only three previous investigations of asso-
ciations between peer relationships and rejection
sensitivity (or interpersonal sensitivity more generally). In
one cross-sectional study, retrospective reports of teasing
during childhood were associated with college students’
interpersonal sensitivity (Butler, Doherty, & Potter,
2007). In another study, no direct relationship was found
between contemporaneous peer ratings of children’s
acceptance and rejection, on the one hand, and rejection
sensitivity on the other hand, but self-reported levels of
social acceptance and rejection did correlate with higher
levels of some components of rejection sensitivity
(Duzman, 2005). In the third study, being rejected
increased boys’ anxious and angry expectations of rejec-
tion, whereas acceptance was associated with fewer
anxious expectations of rejection in boys and girls
(London, Downey, Bonica, & Paltin, 2007).
Strengths of these recent studies are the emergent
focus on acceptance as well as rejection, and an
acknowledgment that gender may also play a role.
However, no previous study has simultaneously exam-
ined rejection sensitivity as a correlate of boys’
compared to girls’ relationships with peers and parents,
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Journal of Relationships Research
RELATIONSHIPS AND REJECTION SENSITIVITY
as well as with a close friendship, which can be quite
different than general acceptance or rejection by the
larger peer group (Parker, Saxton, Asher, & Kovacs,
1999). In addition, there has been no previous exami-
nation of the possibility that positive relationships in
one social–relational domain (e.g., parents or peers)
might buffer the negative experiences in another. There
is, however, a long history of research supporting links
between relationships and aspects of psychological well-
being other than rejection sensitivity. Therefore, this
research guided hypotheses about how multiple forms
of relationship experiences would be simultaneously
and jointly associated with rejection sensitivity. For
example, parental support has been shown to be one of
the three re-occurring themes in the lives of resilient
children, showing that family support can buffer (i.e.,
moderate) negative outcomes from many forms of stress
such as poverty and prejudice (Garmezy, 1983). In
another study, Patterson, Cohn, and Kao (1989)
studied 81 six-year-old children and their mothers to
assess the protective factor of maternal warmth against
peer rejection. The main finding was that rejected chil-
dren whose mothers were rated as warm and accepting
had fewer behavioural problems than rejected children
whose mothers were low in warmth. This protective
factor was more evident in more rejected compared to
less rejected children.
With regards to friendship, satisfying friendships
can also serve a protective function against rejection
(e.g., Bollmer et al., 2005; Schmidt & Bagwell, 2007).
Therefore it was predicted that friendship quality
would protect against peer group problems (i.e., rejec-
tion and exclusion). Furthermore, this research, in
conjunction with research that has found peer attach-
ment to be just as important in childhood as parental
attachment (e.g., Cotterell, 1992), indicated that
friendship quality could also provide a protective func-
tion against parental rejection.
In summary, there were four specific aims in this
study. Taken together, the aims addressed the roles of
parents, peers, friends, and gender in early adolescents’
rejection sensitivity. The first was to determine if rejec-
tion sensitivity is independently associated with
rejection by parents, rejection by peers, acceptance by
parents, and friendship satisfaction. The second aim
was to test the buffering roles of parental acceptance
and a satisfying friendship on the association between
rejection sensitivity and peer rejection. The third aim
was to determine if having a satisfying friendship could
protect against rejection sensitivity in the face of parent
rejection. The fourth and final aim was to examine
gender differences in both levels of rejection sensitivity
and associations between sensitivity and relationship
experiences. Three hypotheses were tested. No hypothe-
ses were made about gender. Instead, gender was
explored as a potential moderator of associations found
when testing these three hypotheses.
1. Parental and peer rejection will each be positively asso-
ciated, and parent acceptance and friendship
satisfaction will each be negatively associated with rejec-
tion sensitivity.
2. Parental acceptance and friendship satisfaction will
buffer the association between peer rejection and rejec-
tion sensitivity; the association between rejection and
sensitivity will be weaker when parent acceptance is
high rather than lower and when friendship satisfaction
is high rather than lower.
3. Friendship satisfaction will buffer the association
between parental rejection and rejection sensitivity; the
association between rejection and sensitivity will be
weaker when friendship satisfaction is high rather than
lower.
Method
Participants
The study participants were 417 children and early ado-
lescents from two large, Australian public schools.
Schools contained children in grades 1 to 7, and all
children in grades 5 to 7 were eligible to participate.
Age ranged from 9 to 13 (M= 10.7, SD = 1.1), with
53% girls and 47% boys. The schools included children
with low to middle socioeconomic status and reflect the
racial/ethnic diversity of the area; 80% were
white/Caucasian with the other 20% Asian, Indian,
Middle Eastern, Aboriginal or Pacific Islander, or from
a range of other sociocultural backgrounds. Of the
parental consent forms distributed, 79% were returned
and, of these, 87% agreed to participate, for a final par-
ticipation rate of 65%. The majority of children (62%)
lived with both of their biological parents. Students also
assented to their own participation.
Measures
Rejection sensitivity. The Children’s Rejection Sensitivity
Questionnaire (CRSQ; Downey et al., 1995; Downey,
Lebolt, Rincon, & Freitas, 1998) was used to measure
anxious and angry expectations of rejection. The CRSQ
consists of five vignettes involving peers and teachers
(e.g., ‘Imagine you’re in your classroom, and everyone
is splitting up into groups to work on a special project
together. You sit there and watch lots of other kids
getting picked. As you wait, you wonder if the kids you
want to be with will want you for their group’).
Following each vignette, children respond to three
questions to gauge their affect and rejection expecta-
tions. The first two questions assessed anxious and
angry responses by asking how nervous and how mad
they would feel in this situation. Responses to these two
items ranged from 1 (Not at all) to 5 (Yes/extremely). In
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JULIE MCLACHLAN, MELANIE J. ZIMMER-GEMBECK AND LEANNE MCGREGOR
Journal of Relationships Research
the third question, children reported the likelihood of
an accepting versus a rejecting response. Responses
ranged from 1 (No) to 5 (Yes).
Scoring of the CRSQ depends on weighting children’s
expectation of acceptance versus rejection by their
anxious and angry responses. Two scores for each vignette
are calculated by reversing the response to the expecta-
tion item before multiplying this response by children’s
responses regarding anxiety and anger. Responses are
then summed to produce ‘cross-situational’ anxiety and
anger scores. Finally, scores across the five vignettes are
averaged to provide a total rejection sensitivity score.
Higher scores indicated higher rejection sensitivity. Only
the total rejection sensitivity score was used in the
current study, Cronbach’s α= .83.
Parental acceptance and rejection. The acceptance and
rejection subscales from the Parents as Social Context
Questionnaire (PSCQ; Skinner, Johnson, & Snyder,
2005) were used to measure children’s perceived parental
acceptance and rejection. Acceptance was defined as the
expression of affection, love and kindness towards a child
demonstrated by support and emotional availability.
Rejection was defined as the expression of hostility,
harshness and irritability towards a child demonstrated
by criticism and disapproval. Each subscale had four
items. Sample items from the acceptance and rejection
subscales are ‘My parents let me know they love me’ and
‘Sometimes I wonder if my parents like me’ respectively.
Responses to each item ranged from 1 (Not at all true) to
5 (Very t r u e). Summary acceptance and rejection scores
were obtained by averaging items on each subscale. In
the current study, Cronbach’s α= .82 and α= .78 for
the acceptance and rejection subscales, respectively.
Rejection by peers. Items from the Perception of Peers
and Self Questionnaire (POPS; Rudolph, Hammen, &
Burge, 1995) were used to measure perceptions of peer
rejection and exclusion. Items were either negatively
worded, such as ‘Friends often leave you out when there
are other kids around to play with’, or positively
worded, such as ‘Friends usually stick up for you when
you’re in trouble’. Response options ranged from 1 (Not
at all true) to 5 (Ver y t r ue). After reversing positively
worded items, the 15 items were averaged to assess rejec-
tion. In the current study, the Cronbach’s αwas .84.
Friendship satisfaction. Three items from the
Network of Relationships Inventory (NRI; Furman &
Buhrmester, 1985) assessed children’s satisfaction with
their best friendship. An example item is ‘I think my
best friendship is very good’. Three items were used
rather than the full scale because of school time con-
straints. Response options ranged from 1 (Not at all
true) to 5 (Ver y t r ue). Responses were averaged so that
higher scores indicated more satisfaction with friend-
ships. The three items yielded a Cronbach’s α= .80.
Procedure
Following ethical approvals, parental consent and child
assent, students completed questionnaires in their class-
rooms. Instructions and questions were read aloud
while children completed each question. Completion of
the questionnaire took approximately 30 minutes.
Results
Simple Correlations and Unique Associations
Correlations. As expected, participants who reported
more parental rejection also reported more rejection sen-
sitivity in response to vignettes, and those who reported
more parental acceptance were lower in rejection sensitiv-
ity (see Table 1). Also as anticipated, participants who
reported more peer rejection reported more rejection sen-
sitivity, and those who were more satisfied with their best
friendships were lower in rejection sensitivity.
Unique associations. When rejection sensitivity was
regressed on measures of parental rejection, peer rejec-
tion, parental acceptance, and friendship satisfaction, a
significant 34% of the variance was accounted for in
rejection sensitivity, F(6, 410) = 34.8, p< .01. Parent and
peer rejection were uniquely associated with more rejec-
tion sensitivity, but there were no significant associations
of parental acceptance or friendship satisfaction with
rejection sensitivity (see Table 2). A ztest determined
that the association between peer rejection and rejection
sensitivity was significantly stronger than the associa-
TABLE 1
Pearson’s Correlations Between Measures (N= 417)
Variables 12345
1. Rejection sensitivity
2. Parental rejection .36**
3. Peer rejection .56** .44**
4. Parental acceptance -.24** -.57** -.34**
5. Friendship satisfaction -.30** -.26** -.57** .26**
Age -.07 .03 .03 -.04 .01
M(SD) 6.2 (3.0) 1.8 (0.9) 2.3 (0.7) 4.6 (0.7) 4.6 (0.8)
35
Journal of Relationships Research
RELATIONSHIPS AND REJECTION SENSITIVITY
tion between parental rejection and rejection sensitivity,
z= -7.95, p< .01. Additionally, there was a small nega-
tive association between age and rejection sensitivity.
Moderating effects of parental acceptance and friend-
ship satisfaction. Both parental acceptance and friendship
satisfaction were expected to buffer (reduce) the strength
of the positive association between peer rejection and
rejection sensitivity. Also, friendship satisfaction was
expected to buffer the positive association between
parental rejection and rejection sensitivity. Hence, three
interactions were tested in three hierarchical regression
models. The interactions were between (1) peer rejec-
tion and parent acceptance, (2) peer rejection and
friendship satisfaction, and (3) parental rejection and
friendship satisfaction. In each model, centred variables
were used (see Jaccard, Turrisi, & Wan, 1990). These
were obtained by subtracting the mean of each variable
from each participant’s actual score. Centring of vari-
ables is one suggested strategy for reducing the
likelihood of multicollinearity concerns in multiple
regression when testing interaction effects.
Parental acceptance buffering the association between
peer rejection and rejection sensitivity. In Step 1 of the
first model, rejection sensitivity was regressed on centred
peer rejection and parental acceptance (see Model 1 in
Table 3). To investigate whether parental acceptance
buffered the association between peer rejection and
rejection sensitivity, the interaction between parental
acceptance and peer rejection was entered in Step 2 of
the hierarchical regression model. The interaction term
was significantly associated with rejection sensitivity, β
= -.14, p< .01, ΔR2= .016. When this interaction effect
was examined further, using techniques described by
Jaccard et al. (1990), the association between peer rejec-
tion and rejection sensitivity was found to be weaker for
participants who reported high rather than lower
parental acceptance (see Figure 1a). It also revealed that
rejection sensitivity was highest among young people
who reported both high rejection by peers and low
parental acceptance.
To examine this finding further, we reanalysed these
data, replacing the measure of peer rejection with the
sum of two items that participants completed to
reported how much they thought the other kids in their
grade and in their class liked them; each item had
responses from 1 (Not at all) to 5 (Very much; metaper-
ception, Cillessen & Bukowski, 2000; Sandstrom et al.,
2003). To form the interaction, this summary score was
reversed and centred before forming the product term
with parental acceptance. The reversed metaperception
item was correlated with the POPS measure of peer
TABLE 2
Results of Regressing Rejection Sensitivity on all Measures (N = 417)
Variables B (SE) β
Age -.23 (.11) -.08*
Gender .25 (.24) .04
Parental rejection 1.47 (.50) .15**
Peer rejection 2.33 (.24) .52**
Parental acceptance -.69 (.93) -.04
Friendship satisfaction -.23 (.85) -.01
Note: R² = .34, F(6,410) = 34.84, p < .01.
*p< .05. **p< .01.
TABLE 3
Results of Testing Parental Acceptance as a Moderator of the Association between Peer Rejection and Rejection Sensitivity (N = 417)
Model 1
Model 2
POPS peer rejection
Children’s meta-perception of peer rejection
Variables B (SE) βB (SE) β
Step 1
Age -.23 (.11) -.08* -.21 (.13) -.08*
Gender .25 (.24) 0.04 -.02 (.27) 0
A — Peer rejection 2.49 (.20) .56** 1.38 (.18) .36**
B — Parental acceptance -.52 (.83) -0.03 -2.49 (.89) -.13**
Step 2
Age -.21 (.11) -.08* -.20 (.13) -0.07
Gender .31 (.24) 0.05 -.07 (.26) -0.01
B — Peer rejection 2.45 (.19) .55** 1.28 (.18) .33**
A — Parental acceptance .60 (.90) 0.03 -1.61 (.92) -0.08
A × B -3.12 (.99) -.14** -2.93 (.84) -.17**
Note: Model 1 R2= .323 for Step 1, F(4, 412) = 49.24, p< .01; ΔR2= .016 for Step 2, ΔF(1, 411) = 9.84, p< .01. Model 2 R2= .174 for Step 1, F(4, 412) =
121.74, p< .01; ΔR2= .024 for Step 2, ΔF(1, 411) = 12.25, p< .01.
*p< .05. **p< .01.
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JULIE MCLACHLAN, MELANIE J. ZIMMER-GEMBECK AND LEANNE MCGREGOR
Journal of Relationships Research
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
Low (-1 SD) High (+1 SD)
Peer rejection (POPS)
Rejection sensitivity
Low parent acceptance (-1 SD)
High parent acceptance (+1 SD)
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
Low (-1 SD) High (+1 SD)
Peer rejection (metaperception)
Rejection sensitivity
Low parent acceptance (-1 SD)
High parent acceptance (+1 SD)
FIGURE 1b
Illustrations of parental acceptance moderating the association between between metaperception and rejection sensitivity (1b).
FIGURE 1a
Illustrations of parental acceptance moderating the association between perceived peer rejection and rejection sensitivity (1a).
rejection, r= .58, p< .01. Model 2 in Table 3 and Figure
1b show the results of this analysis of metaperception.
T
aken together, Figures 1a and 1b show that, as
expected, parental acceptance buffered the positive associa-
tion between peer rejection and rejection sensitivity. This
was true when peer rejection was measured with the
POPS (Figure 1a) and when peer rejection was measured
by metaperception (Figure 1b). Moreover, in both cases,
young people reported the most rejection sensitivity when
peer rejection was high and parental acceptance was low.
Friendship satisfaction buffering the association
between peer rejection and rejection sensitivity.
Rejection sensitivity was regressed on centred peer
rejection and friendship satisfaction to test the hypothe-
37
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RELATIONSHIPS AND REJECTION SENSITIVITY
sised buffering effect of friendship satisfaction (see
Model 1 in Table 4). In this analysis, one participant
was found to be an extreme multivariate outlier. After
removal of this participant, a significant moderating
effect of friendship satisfaction was found, β= .29, p<
.05, as expected. When this interaction was examined
further, peer rejection was only a significant positive
correlate of rejection sensitivity among those with high
friendship satisfaction. In particular, it was children
who reported low peer rejection and high friendship
satisfaction that had the lowest rejection sensitivity.
Nevertheless, this finding was fairly weak and was
found only with one of our measures of peer problems;
when these analyses were repeated replacing peer rejec-
tion with the measure of children’s metaperception of
being disliked by peers, there was no buffering effect of
friendship quality (see Model 2 in Table 4).
Friendship satisfaction buffering the association
between parental rejection and rejection sensitivity.
We estimated one final model to test the possibility that
friendship satisfaction would buffer the negative associ-
ation between parental rejection and rejection
sensitivity. This hypothesis was not supported; the
interaction was not significant.
Gender
Gender differences in mean level. No difference in
rejection sensitivity was found when boys and girls were
compared. Boys did report more peer rejection than
girls, t(1,415) = 3.15, p< .01, whereas girls reported
more friendship satisfaction than boys, t(1.415) = -
2.84, p< .01. There were no gender differences in
parental acceptance or rejection.
Gender moderation. We examined whether there were
gender differences in associations of rejection sensitivity
with parent and peer rejection, parent acceptance, and
friendship satisfaction. This involved testing four
product terms between (1) centred measures of parent
and peer relationships and (2) gender. No interaction
effects were significant, ranged from -.08 to .04.
Associations of rejection sensitivity with parent and
peer relationships did not seem to differ in boys com-
pared to girls.
Discussion
The current research findings provide support for
Downey and colleagues’ (Downey et al., 1999; Levy et
al., 2001) model of rejection sensitivity, in which they
proposed that both parental and peer rejection con-
tribute to individual differences in rejection sensitivity
during childhood and adolescence. The findings also
provide preliminary evidence of an interactive effect
between parent–child and peer relationships in relation
to rejection sensitivity, and provide a foundation for
considering how one relational domain, in this case
peer group relationships, may be prominent in its
implications for negative beliefs and expectations of
rejection but that other domains, such as parent–child
relationships and friendship, may also have negative or
positive implications for rejection sensitivity when con-
sidered along with peer rejection.
In particular, hypotheses were supported regarding
parent and peer rejection experiences as correlates of early
adolescent’s angry and anxious expectations of rejection
(rejection sensitivity). These findings are consistent with
previous research demonstrating the links between
TABLE 4
Results of Testing Friendship Satisfaction as a Moderator of the Association between Peer Rejection and Rejection Sensitivity (N = 416)
Model 1
Model 2
POPS peer rejection
Children’s meta-perception of peer rejection
Variables B (SE) βB (SE) β
Step 1
Age -.20 (.11) -.08* -.16 (.12) -0.06
Gender .26 (.24) 0.04 .12 (.26) 0.02
A — Peer rejection 2.43 (.22) .57** 1.10 (.19) .29**
B — Friendship satisfaction -.30 (.84) -0.02 -3.24 (.81) -.20**
Step 2
Age -.20 (.11) -0.07 -.16 (.12) -0.06
Gender .27 (.24) 0.05 .12 (.26) 0.02
A – Peer rejection 1.16 (.70) .27** 1.14 (.19) .30**
B – Friendship satisfaction -.57 (.95) -0.03 -3.49 (.86) -.21**
A ×B 1.89 (.89) .29*.13 (.15) 0.04
Note: Model 1: R2= .299 for Step 1, F (4,411) = 43.58, p< .01; ΔR2= .006 for Step 2, Fchg (1,410) = 3.62, p< .05).
Model 2: = .159 for Step 1, F(4,411) = 19.37, p< .01; ΔR2= .001 for Step 2, Fchg (1,410) = .684, p= .41.
*p< .05. **p< .01.
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JULIE MCLACHLAN, MELANIE J. ZIMMER-GEMBECK AND LEANNE MCGREGOR
Journal of Relationships Research
accounts of rejection-related experiences with parents
and rejection sensitivity (Feldman & Downey, 1994;
Downey et al., 1995; Downey et al., 1997) and the link
between peer rejection and heightened rejection sensitiv-
ity in children (Duzman, 2005; London et al., 2007).
However, none of these previous studies focused on both
parent and peer rejection simultaneously. Hence, this is
the first study to show that parent and peer rejection
each uniquely contribute to rejection sensitivity during
middle/late childhood and early adolescence. This was
expected, but we did not anticipate the very prominent
role of peer rejection in rejection sensitivity, especially
given that our participants were at an age when parents
remain significant sources of support (Skinner &
Zimmer-Gembeck, 2007). Through all the analyses, it
was clear that peer group rejection had the strongest asso-
ciation with rejection sensitivity. This finding illustrates
the importance of the general peer group for early adoles-
cents’ expectations of others and their emotional
reactions to perceived rejection.
This prominent role of peer rejection continued to
be clear when parental acceptance and friendship satis-
faction were examined as buffers (i.e., moderators) of
the association between peer rejection and rejection
sensitivity. More specifically, the positive relationship
between peer rejection and rejection sensitivity was
weaker when parental acceptance was high compared to
low showing a protective influence of parent accept-
ance, as anticipated. This result is consistent with
findings that parental acceptance protects against nega-
tive social expectations and hostile attributional biases
(Liu, 2006; Steele, Steele, & Johansson, 2002).
Although there are multiple possible reasons why
parents can play a protective role in the face of peer
rejection, we expect that parents may be important
because they help and guide their rejected children via
discussing and explaining peer rejection in ways that
impacts their understanding and minimises attributions
of these experiences as internal (self-related) and stable
patterns (Patterson, Cohn, & Kao, 1989).
What was also interesting were the significant inter-
action results found for (1) parent acceptance when a
second measure of peer rejection, children’s metaper-
ceptions of how much their peers like them, was
examined, and (2) the role of friendship satisfaction in
the association between peer rejection and rejection
sensitivity. Similar to parent acceptance, friendship sat-
isfaction was expected to accompany reduced rejection
sensitivity and was expected to moderate the association
between peer rejection and rejection sensitivity. In both
of these cases, good relationships with parents or friends
did moderate the association between peer rejection and
rejection sensitivity. Nevertheless, the buffering effect
was somewhat different than anticipated for friendship
satisfaction. Rather than showing that high friendship
satisfaction can temper the association between peer
rejection and rejection sensitivity, it showed that friend-
ship satisfaction is associated with low rejection
sensitivity especially when participants also report low
peer rejection. Overall, peer group rejection appears to
have such a prominent role in rejection sensitivity that
when it is perceived to be high, children’s anticipation,
anxiety and anger about possible rejection events is high
regardless of a good relationship with a friend. In addi-
tion, a satisfying friendship adds protective benefits for
those who report that their peers generally like them.
To our knowledge, no previous study has reported this
prominent, overarching role for peer rejection, but also
illustrates that we cannot ignore the role of good family
and friend relationships in reducing rejection sensitivity.
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
Low (-1 SD) High (+1 SD)
Peer rejection (POPS)
Rejection sensitivity
Low friendship satisfaction (-1 SD)
High friendship satisfaction (+1 SD)
FIGURE 2
Illustration of friendship satisfaction moderating the association between peer rejection and rejection sensitivity.
39
Journal of Relationships Research
RELATIONSHIPS AND REJECTION SENSITIVITY
Our final hypothesis was that friendship satisfaction
would buffer the relationship between parental rejection
and rejection sensitivity. This hypothesis was not sup-
ported. The parent’s role in middle childhood has been
described as one of giving, caring, helping and guiding,
whereas peer relationships have been described as pro-
viding companionship and loyalty (Furman &
Buhrmester, 1985). Therefore, it is possible that a satis-
fying friendship with a peer does not have the
provisions required to buffer rejection sensitivity in the
face of rejection by parents, but it also may be that
parents play a more minor role in the development of
rejection sensitivity overall so that such a buffering
influence of friendship is quite difficult to detect.
All of these findings should be considered along with
some study limitations. In particular, the primary study
limitations pertain to the reliance on child self-report
only and the use of a cross-sectional study design. First,
using only self-report measures may have inflated the
strength of associations between variables. Yet, we believe
it is important to obtain personal perceptions of relation-
ships, and the use of vignettes to measure rejection
sensitivity was expected to reduce shared method vari-
ance. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that
research has found perceptions of liking by peers to differ
from peer reports of classmates who are liked or disliked
(Zimmer-Gembeck, Hunter, & Pronk, 2007). We did,
however, have two measures of peer rejection which both
yielded significant interaction effects when crossed with
parent acceptance. Second, the use of a cross-sectional
design limits the conclusions that can be drawn about
directions of effects; it is possible that it is rejection sensi-
tivity that creates rejection and lower acceptance for some
children, as well as social experiences underpinning sensi-
tivity (e.g., Purdie & Downey, 2000). However, our
findings in such a large sample and with a young age
group are important evidence to support future longitu-
dinal research to extend these findings.
In summary, the current study has implications for
rejection sensitivity theory and intervention. In relation
to theory, the findings provide the first evidence for the
unique roles of peer and parental rejection in account-
ing for rejection sensitivity. Another extension on
rejection sensitivity theory is suggested by the finding
that peer rejection may be a greater risk factor for rejec-
tion sensitivity than parental rejection, but that parents
can buffer the negative impact of peer rejection on their
children’s angry and anxious expectations of rejection
by others. More research is needed that examines the
interactions between parental and peer relationships or
general peer relationships and close friendships. Such
interactive effects have not been considered in previous
research into child or adolescents’ views and expecta-
tions of relationships, but these findings show that
relationships with others may work together to impact
upon understanding of others and perceptions of
others’ behaviours. Such evidence could guide the
design of interventions by suggesting that children and
early adolescents may benefit from the involvement of
parents, especially when they are rejected by their peers,
and that children do accrue benefits from both being
generally accepted by their peers and having satisfying
close friendships.
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... Rejection sensitivity theory proposed that internalization of childhood rejection experiences related to parents or peers and proliferation of these experiences to other interpersonal relationships like teachers and other non-familial adults are central to rejection sensitivity (Downey, et a., 1999). Researchers further extended rejection sensitivity theory suggesting that peer rejection may be more significant precursor of rejection sensitivity than parental rejection but parental support may TEACHER REJECTION SENSITIVITY AND PSYCHOLOGICAL ADJUSTMENT IN ADOLESCENTS 38 buffer the negative effects of peer rejection (McLachlan et al., 2010). Although impact of parent-peer rejection on psychological adjustment of adolescents has been investigated (Shujja, 2018), however, teacher-peer rejection sensitivity interaction effect on psychological maladjustment of adolescents is yet to be known. ...
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