Dismissing Adolescents and the Evolution of their Close Relationships J. Claire Stephenson

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Dismissing Adolescents and the Evolution of their Close Relationships

  • J. Claire Stephenson

  • Joseph P. Allen

  • Jill M. Antonishak

  • University of Virginia



  • Dismissing Adolescents

  • Tend to give positive global descriptions of experiences but then fail to substantiate them with examples

  • Are generally uncomfortable with attachment related emotions and experiences, and therefore may push away peers (Kobak & Sceery, 1988)

  • Show less autonomy and relatedness in interactions with parents as well as withdrawal from engagement with attachment figures (Becker-stoll & Fremmer-Bombik, 1997)

  • May be unable to move beyond ongoing difficulties with parents to establish successful new relationships with peers (Gavin & Furman, 1996)


  • Attachment and Peer Relationships

  • Through repeated experiences with parents, infants develop expectations about care giving, and these expectations become internalized and guide the development of subsequent relationships (Bowlby, 1973)

  • Adolescence is a time period during which attachment needs are gradually transferred from parents to peers in response to the adolescent’s growing desire for autonomy from parents (Allen & Land, 1999)

  • It can be expected that the relationship benefits that come with a secure attachment organization during childhood will be carried forward into peer relationships during adolescence

  • One of the most important aspects of peer relationships in adolescence is the development of romantic relationships (Cullari & Cikus, 1990; Treboux & Busch-Rossnagel, 1990; Wright Peterson, & Barnes, 1990)

Research Questions

  • Question 1: Friendships

  • In relationships, dismissing individuals tend to behave in ways that minimize attachment-related issues

  • Will the relationship strategies employed by dismissing teens result in lower quality friendships?

  • Question 2: Romantic Relationships

  • Dismissing adolescents may be uncomfortable with the closeness that often develops in romantic relationships

  • Do dismissing adolescents, as a way to keep their partner at a distance, use more criticism in their romantic relationships?

  • Question 3: Interview vs. Self-report

  • It has been shown that dismissing adults underreport problems in interpersonal relationships (Dozier & Lee, 1995; Kobak & Sceery, 1988)

  • In regards to their ability to predict relationship outcomes, how will self-reports of attachment differ from an interview assessment of attachment for dismissing adolescents?


Attachment Measures

  • The Adult Attachment Interview (Main, Kaplan, & Cassidy, 1985) was administered to target adolescents at age 14. This semi-structured interview probes individuals’ memories about their childhood experiences with primary caregivers. The Attachment Q-sort procedure (Kobak et al., 1993) was used to determine a continuous dismissing attachment score for each adolescent.

  • The Inventory of parent and peer attachment (Armsden & Greenberg, 1989) was completed by target adolescents at age 17. This study uses the “alienation from peers” scale which includes items such as

      • I feel alone or apart when I’m with my friends
      • My friends don’t understand what I’m going through these days
      • I feel the need to be in touch with my friends more often
      • I get upset a lot more that my friends know about
  • The Multi-Item Measure of Adult Romantic Attachment (Brennan, Clark, & Shaver, 1998) was completed by target adolescents at age 18.This study uses the “avoidance” scale which includes items such as

      • I get uncomfortable when a romantic partner wants to be very close
      • I find it difficult to allow myself to depend on romantic partners
      • I don’t mind asking romantic partners for comfort, help or advice
      • I prefer not to show a partner how I feel deep down

Relationship Quality Measures

  • The Friendship Quality Questionnaire (Parker & Asher, 1993) was completed by close friends about the target adolescent at ages 14 and 17. The “total friendship quality” scale includes items about validation and caring, conflict resolution, conflict and betrayal, help and guidance, companionship and recreation, and intimate exchange.

  • The Network of Relationships Inventory (Furman & Buhrmester, 1985) was completed by romantic partners about the target adolescents at age 18. This study uses the criticism subscale, which includes the following items:

    • How often does this person point out your faults or put you down?
    • How often does this person criticize you?
    • How often does this person say mean or harsh things to you?

Results (see Table 1)

  • Hierarchical multiple regression using FIML showed

      • Adolescents who were classified as more dismissing on the AAI at age 14 showed relative decreases in the quality of their friendships (as reported by close peers) between the ages of 14 and 17.
      • Teen’s dismissing status (as assessed by the AAI at age 14) predicted friendship quality above and beyond teen’s concurrent self-report of alienation from friends at age 17
      • Attachment as measured by the AAI moderated the link between teen’s self-report of alienation from friends and their friendship quality (as reported by close peers). The relationship was significant for low-dismissing teens, but not for high-dismissing teens (see figure)

Table 1

Results (see Table 2)

  • Hierarchical multiple regression using FIML showed

      • Adolescents who were classified as more dismissing on the AAI at age 14 used more criticism in romantic relationships at age 18 (as reported by romantic partners).
      • Adolescent’s dismissing status (as assessed by the AAI at age 14) predicted use of criticism above and beyond adolescent’s concurrent self-report of avoidance in romantic relationships at age 18

Table 2


  • Peer reports of lower quality friendships may be due to dismissing adolescents’ tendency to remain distant and detached from relationships

  • Negative feedback may reduce feelings of intimacy with a romantic partner (Hirschberger et al., 2003). Use of criticism, a form of negative feedback, highlights one aspect of dismissing individuals approach to relationships that may serve to keep romantic partners at arms length

  • Self-reports of alienation from friends were predictive of friendship quality for low dismissing adolescents, but not for high dismissing adolescents. Clearly there is a disconnect between how dismissing adolescents see their friendships and how their friends perceive the relationship


  • Over time, it appears that dismissing adolescents face difficulties in forming close relationships, first with peers and later with romantic partners

  • The relationship strategies dismissing individuals developed during childhood in response to unavailable caregivers seem to be maladaptive when it comes to forming new relationships during adolescence

  • The ability of the AAI to predict relationship outcomes above and beyond self-report measures highlights the importance of assessing the unconscious aspects of attachment organization

  • For adolescents who are not dismissing, self-reports of attachment to peers may provide informative assessments of the actual nature of their relationships, whereas for dismissing teens, self-reports may not capture the true nature of their relationships

Future Directions

  • Administer the Adult Attachment Interview again at age 25 to look at change in attachment

  • Continue to collect romantic partner data in order to increase sample size and look at change over time

  • Explore the differences in the nature of attachment relationships with parents, peers, and romantic partners

  • Follow adolescents with a dismissing state of mind into young adulthood to assess long-term outcomes with regard to close relationships and functional autonomy

  • Identify potential risk-factors for dismissing adolescents and design intervention strategies to foster the development of successful close relationship in adolescence


  • Allen, J.P., & Land, D. (1999). Attachment in adolescence. In J. Cassidy & P.R. Shaver (Eds.), Handbook of attachment: Theory, research, and clincial application. (pp 319-335). New York, NY, USA: The Guilford Press.

  • Becker-Stoll, F., & Fremmer-Bombik, E. (1997, April). Adolescent-mother interaction and attachment: A longitudinal study. Paper presented at the Biennial Meetings of the Society for Research in Child Development, Washington, D.C.

  • Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and loss: Vol. 2. Separation. New York: Basic Books.

  • Cullari, S., Cullari, S., & Mikus, R. (1990). Correlates of adolescent sexual behavior. Psychological Reports, 1179-1184.

  • Gavin, L. A., & Furman, W. (1996). Adolescent girls' relationships with mothers and best friends. Child Development, 67(2), 375-386.

  • Furman, W., & Buhrmester, D. (1985). Childrens' perceptions of the personal relationshipsin their social networks. Developmental Psychology, 21, 1016-1024.

  • Hirschberger, G., Florian, V., & Mikulincer, M. (2003). Strivings for romantic intimacy following partner complaint or partner criticism—A terror management perspective. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 20, 675–687.

  • Kobak, R. R., & Sceery, A. (1988). Attachment in late adolescence: Working models, affect regulation and representations of self and others. Child Development, 59, 135-146.

  • Kobak, R. R., Cole, H., Ferenz-Gillies, R., Fleming, W., & Gamble, W. (1993). Attachment and emotion regulation during mother-teen problem-solving: A control theory analysis. Child Development, 64, 231-245.

  • Main, M., Kaplan, N., & Cassidy, J. (1985). Security in infancy, childhood, and adulthood: A move to the level of representation. In I. Bretherton & E. Waters (Eds.), Growing points in attachment theory and research, monographs of the society for research in child development. Serial no. 209. Vol. 50. pp. 66-104.

  • Treboux, D. A., Crowell, J. A., Owens, G., & Pan, H. (1994, February). Attachment behaviors and working models: Relation to best friendships and romantic relationships. Paper presented at the Society for Research in Adolescence, San Diego, CA.

  • Treboux, D., & Busch-Rossnagel, N. A. (1990). Social network influences on adolescent sexual attitudes and behaviors. Journal of Adolescent Research, 5(2), 175-189.

  • Wright, D. W., Peterson, L. R., & Barnes, H. L. (1990). The relation of parental employment and contextual variables with sexual permissiveness and gender role attitudes of rural early adolescence. Journal of Early Adolescence, 382-398.

  • Brennan, K.A., Clark, C.L., Shaver, P.R. (1998). Self-report measurement of adult attachment. In J.A. Simpson & W.S. Rholes (Eds.), Attachment Theory and Close Relatsionships, (46-76). New York: Guilford Press.


  • Joseph P. Allen

  • Jill M. Antonishak

  • Nell Manning

  • Amanda Hare

  • Erin Miga

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