In this review, we have referred to a developmental model concerning the etiology, correlates, and outcomes of social withdrawal during childhood and adolescence (see ). Our suggested pathway derives from the data reviewed above as well as extant theoretical perspectives linking conceptually related dispositional, interactional, and relationship constructs. From our perspective, the ontogeny of a socially withdrawn profile begins with newborns who are biologically predisposed to have a low threshold for arousal when confronted with social (or nonsocial) stimulation and novelty. This hyperarousal may make these babies extremely difficult for their parents to soothe and comfort. We propose that some parents may find these dispositional characteristics aversive and difficult to handle. Parents may react to easily aroused and wary babies with the belief that the child is vulnerable and requires protection. Such overprotective and oversolicitous parenting, in concert with the child’s disposition of a low threshold for arousal and an inability to be easily soothed, are posited to predict the development of an insecure parent-infant attachment relationship. Thus, it is suggested that the interplay of endogenous, socialization, and early relationship factors leads to a sense of felt insecurity.
We also propose that the infant’s temperament along with feelings of insecurity may guide him or her onto a trajectory toward behavioral inhibition. The consistent expression of inhibition precludes these children from experiencing the positive outcomes associated with social exploration and peer play. Thus, we predict a developmental sequence in which an inhibited, fearful, insecure child withdraws from her/his social world of peers, fails to develop those skills derived from peer interaction, and consequently, becomes increasingly anxious and isolated from the peer group.
Social withdrawal becomes increasingly salient to the peer group with age. This deviation from age-appropriate social norms is associated with the establishment of peer rejection; for example, as noted above, even by the early years of childhood, social withdrawal and anxiety are associated with peer rejection and unpopularity.
Reticence to explore and play cooperatively in the peer environment is associated with, and predictive of, the development of an impoverished style of interpersonal negotiation skills. We have indicated that socially wary and withdrawn children make relatively few attempts to direct the behaviors of their peers and that when they do, their efforts are likely to be met by peer rebuff. And we have reviewed literature suggesting that an outcome of social interactive failure and peer rejection is the development of negative self-esteem and negative self-perceptions of social skills and peer relations. Sensing the child’s difficulties and perceived helplessness, his/her parents might attempt to direct their child’s social behaviors in a power-assertive fashion by telling the child how to act or what to do, or by actually solving the child’s interpersonal dilemmas for him/her. As we have described above, an overcontrolled or overinvolved parenting style maintains and exacerbates the socially withdrawn child’s inter- and intrapersonal difficulties.
Drawing from the extant literature, we believe that when socially withdrawn children present themselves as wary and anxious in the peer group, not only might they become increasingly rejected, but they also may be victimized by the peer group at large. This does not mean to suggest that they will be friendless; however, given the literature reviewed above, it may be that their friendships will be with children or adolescents much like themselves.
In summary, we propose that social incompetence of an overcontrolled, withdrawn nature may be the product of an inhibited temperament, an insecure parent-child relationship, shared genetic vulnerabilities or traits with the parents, overly directive and protective parenting, and peer rejection and victimization, and the interactions among “all of the above.” The posited consequences of this constellation of factors are the development of (a) negative thoughts and feelings about the self, (b) social anxiety, and (c) loneliness. If the establishment and maintenance of close interpersonal relationships is considered a significant objective that has not been met, another outcome may be depression.
It is very important to note that we do not consider infant dispositional characteristics to necessarily lead to the pathway described above. A wary, fearful/inhibited temperament may be deflected toward the development of social competence by responsive and sensitive caregiving (Degnan & Fox 2007
). An inhibited, emotionally dysregulated temperament does not necessarily produce an incompetent, internalized, or overcontrolled behavioral style. On the other hand, it may well be that parental overcontrol and overinvolvement may deflect the temperamentally easy-going infant toward a pathway of internalizing difficulties.
Additionally, the ability to cope with one’s fearful and shy dispositions by displaying socially and emotionally competent behaviors may move the child off the pathway to peer rejection and victimization. And having close friendships with others who are socially and emotionally competent may be protective. These latter suggestions are merely testable suggestions. Data remain to be gathered to address these positions.
The developmental pathway we have offered above represents a useful heuristic for studying the etiology of social withdrawal. We speculate that there are direct and indirect ways in which dispositional characteristics, parent-child relationships, parenting styles, and peer relationships may influence the development and maintenance of social withdrawal, its concomitants, and its outcomes.