What do you think? Associations between social anxiety, mentalizing, and social competence in middle childhood.
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Every individual brings a unique perspective and understanding to the social world that they inhabit. This is particularly true of socially anxious children, who view their social environments as a place of potential evaluation and rejection. This fearful and negative outlook not only impacts their internal processing of information, but their day-to-day social behaviours and long-term socio-emotional wellbeing. Across three studies, the findings of this dissertation demonstrate that children’s self-reported social anxiety is associated with the ways they perceive (emotion identification) and reason about (mentalizing) others’ emotions, and that styles of mentalizing are associated with children’s real-world styles of interacting with new peers. Chapter Two examined the longitudinal associations between social anxiety and two aspects of social information processing in middle childhood: identification of and mentalization about others’ emotional expressions. At 7 years of age, social anxiety was associated with greater accuracy in identifying others’ dynamic emotion displays and a tendency to over mentalize regarding the reasons for others’ emotions. Importantly, 8-year social anxiety was predicted by a combination of higher social anxiety at 7 and both under or over mentalizing biases at 7. The findings of this chapter demonstrate that (a) social anxiety is associated with children’s ability to identify socially relevant information in others’ dynamic emotional expressions and (b) both over- and under-mentalizing biases can exacerbate already heightened levels of social anxiety in middle childhood. Chapter Three extended the work in Chapter Two by examining children’s mentalizing about others’ evaluations of themselves in social contexts, investigating whether children’s expectations of others’ social evaluations mediate the link between social anxiety and self-esteem. The results of this study demonstrated that there was a direct association between social anxiety at 7 and later self-esteem; however, there was also an indirect effect such that higher social anxiety at age 7 was associated with a negative bias in expectations of others’ social evaluations at age 8 and this negative bias was in turn related to lower self-esteem. The results of this chapter suggest that negative expectations about others’ evaluations are a critical mechanism linking children’s social anxiety and their socio-emotional functioning. Chapter Four extended the findings of Chapter Three to examine the relations between social anxiety, mentalizing, and children’s real-world social engagement, via detailed observations of children’s behaviour during an unstructured interaction with an unfamiliar peer in the lab. This study extended prior research by examining the implications of within-child factors for not only their own social behaviour, but those of their peer as well. The results of the study demonstrated that, while there was no association between social anxiety and either mentalizing or social engagement, children’s expectations of negative evaluations by peers were associated with lower levels of social engagement with an unfamiliar peer. This finding demonstrates that children’s expectations about others’ evaluations impact their moment-to-moment responses in real-world social contexts. Taken as a whole, this dissertation provides evidence that children’s social anxiety tendencies affect the way they process social information which impacts real-world social behaviour and broader emotional functioning in middle childhood.
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Emma Green (2022). What do you think? Associations between social anxiety, mentalizing, and social competence in middle childhood.. UWSpace. http://hdl.handle.net/10012/18416