Social Withdrawal in Adolescence and Early Adulthood: Measurement Issues, Normative Development, and Distinct Trajectories

Background

Social withdrawal during adolescence and early adulthood is particularly problematic because social interactions and friendships become increasingly important for well-being during these ages. Yet little is known about the normative development, distinct trajectories, or correlates of being withdrawn beyond childhood. This study examined the longitudinal patterns of withdrawal while considering measurement issues pertinent to developmental research.

Method

Participants were from a Dutch population-based cohort study, Tracking Adolescents’ Individual Lives Survey (www.trails.nl), including 1,917 adolescents who were assessed at four waves, from the age of 16 to 25 years. Social withdrawal was measured by five items from the Youth Self-Report at the first wave and the same items from the Adult Self-Report at all subsequent waves. Adolescents also reported on their anxiety and antisocial behaviors, and parents reported on adolescents’ shyness, social affiliation, and reduced social contact.

Longitudinal measurement invariance of the social withdrawal construct was examined by increasingly constrained Confirmatory Factor Analysis models. Measurement invariance indicates if participants interpreted withdrawal items consistently over time. A multiple-indicator Latent Growth Curve Model assessed the mean-level change in withdrawal across all participants. Latent Class Growth Analysis was used to determine the number and shape of the distinct withdrawal trajectory classes. Once classes were determined, they were compared on the withdrawal-related variables.

The analytic plans were pre-registered, and all scripts and outputs can be accessed on the Open Science Framework (osf.io/vef8s).

Results

Partial scalar measurement invariance was found for the social withdrawal items, meaning that adolescents generally interpreted items consistently over time. On average, social withdrawal followed a curvilinear pattern: withdrawal decreased between 16 and 19 years, was low between 19 and 22 years, and increased between 22 and 25 years. Three trajectories of social withdrawal emerged. Most adolescents (71.8%) were not socially withdrawn at any age; 16.2% were somewhat socially withdrawn around 16 years, but not withdrawn thereafter; and 12% were persistently withdrawn.

Adolescents who were persistently withdrawn had the highest anxiety, shyness, and reduced social contact, and the lowest affiliation, indicating that adolescents in this group were the most maladjusted. There were no strong and consistent differences between classes on antisocial behaviors.

Conclusion

The normative pattern of social withdrawal in adolescence and early adulthood follows a U-shaped curve, with the lowest levels during late adolescence, and individuals follow one of three withdrawal trajectories. Although most maintained low levels of social withdrawal throughout adolescence and early adulthood, 12% were persistently withdrawn. These results indicate that social withdrawal continues to be a developmentally relevant behavior after childhood, impacting the lives of adolescents and young adults.

Contact: s.a.barzeva@umcg.nl

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