Some people spend a great deal of time and energy worrying about what might happen in their relationships. They see signs of potential rejection almost everywhere. If someone forgets to say “hello” to them or looks at them funny, they might feel bad and wonder whether that person still wants to be their friend. People who have intense reactions to perceived rejection are high in “rejection sensitivity.” Our research suggests that important experiences in childhood can increase the likelihood that people will become rejection sensitive.

Rejection sensitivity is bad for relationships because it can lead to anxious or angry behavior. For example, rejection sensitive people may seek lots (and lots) of reassurance. Or rejection sensitive people may lash out at others because they think others are rejecting them (even though they’re not). The problem with both these kinds of behaviors is that they can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Relationship partners don’t necessarily like providing constant reassurance or being the target of angry outbursts. So even though partners weren’t really rejecting at first, these kinds of anxious and angry reactions may quickly cause them to become rejecting.

So where does rejection sensitivity come from? My collaborators and I looked at paths to rejection sensitivity in a group of parents and children who participated in a research program from the time that the children were infants (12 months old) until they were adolescents. About half of the families included at least one parent who had a problem with alcohol, usually the father. We investigated how chronic experiences with harsh, unpredictable, and controlling parenting or family conflict throughout early and middle childhood might lead to teenagers who worry and/or feel angry about possible rejection from their friends.

In our study, children who had difficult relationships with their parents were more likely to expect and worry about being rejected in adolescence. In other words, having difficult relationships with parents as a kid was associated with becoming a teenager who worries about whether other people are going to follow through and who may need a good deal of reassurance from friends and other people.

Children whose parents had a great deal of conflict with one another – whether verbal or physical -- and those whose parents were very controlling were more likely to become angry in response to potential rejection. So having parents who were very controlling or who often fought with one another was associated with greater anger to perceived slights from friends and other peers as a teen.

In addition, parents who had mental health problems, such as fathers who drank too much or mothers who were depressed – tended to have teenagers who anxiously expected rejection or became particularly angry when they felt they were being rejected. And these effects arose in adolescents even when the mental health issues occurred when the children were babies. Parents’ mental health when their child was an infant appeared to start a domino effect leading to family conflict and less positive and supportive parent-child relationships that ultimately led to their teenagers being especially sensitive to rejection.

We also found that alcohol problems can disrupt the family system in significant ways. Fathers who had drinking problems led to higher levels of family conflict and also led mothers to be less supportive of their children. Less supportive mothering during toddlerhood also led to anxiously expecting rejection for teenagers. Thus, dad’s alcohol use had strong negative effects on their children’s rejection sensitivity through at least two routes – family conflict and mothers’ disengagement.  

Our research shows that what happens in early childhood affects rejection sensitivity, which can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy that creates problems in later relationships. Issues can arise through conflicts with parents, witnessing parents fight with one another, or coping with the parents’ mental health issues, particularly a dad’s alcohol problems. We hope our research will help to inform programs designed to reduce the likelihood that adolescents experience rejection sensitivity, especially for children who have alcoholic parents. If we want to help teenagers, we may want to start with helping parents of young children receive the support that they need for their own mental health and relationships.

For Further Reading:

Godleski, S.A., Eiden, R.D., Kachadourian, L., & Lucke, J. (2019). Etiological pathways to rejection sensitivity in a high risk sample. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45(5), 715-727.

Eiden, R. D., Lessard, J., Colder, C. R., Livingston, J., Casey, M., & Leonard, K. E. (2016). Developmental cascade model for adolescent substance use from infancy to late adolescence. Developmental Psychology, 52 (10), 1619-1633.

Godleski, S.A., Crane, C., & Leonard, K.E. (2018). The influence of concordant and discordant parent alcohol use on child behavior problems. Addictive Behaviors, 79, 81-85.

Stephanie A. Godleski is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Rochester Institute of Technology.