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The Perils of Not Being Attractive or Athletic: Pathways to Adolescent Adjustment Difficulties Through Escalating Unpopularity

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Abstract

Adolescents who lack traits valued by peers are at risk for adjustment difficulties but the mechanisms responsible for deteriorating well-being have yet to be identified. The present study examines processes whereby low athleticism and low attractiveness give rise to adolescent adjustment difficulties. Participants were public middle school students (ages 10 to 13 years, Mage = 11.54, SDage = 1.00) in the USA and Lithuania (300 girls, 280 boys; 52.7% girls). Self-reports of alcohol misuse and loneliness were collected three times during an academic year (M = 12.3 week intervals). Athleticism, attractiveness, unpopularity, and peer rejection were assessed through peer nominations. Full longitudinal mediation analyses examined direct and indirect pathways from stigmatized traits (i.e., low athleticism, low attractiveness) to adjustment difficulties (i.e., alcohol misuse, loneliness) through two indices of low peer status: unpopularity and rejection. The results indicated that the possession of stigmatized traits predicted escalating unpopularity, which, in turn, predicted increasing adjustment difficulties. Similar indirect associations did not emerge with rejection as a mediator, underscoring the unique role of power and prominence (and the lack thereof) in socioemotional development. The findings underscore the adjustment risks and interpersonal challenges that confront children and adolescents who lack traits valued by peers.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful for the assistance and cooperation of the students, faculty, and staff at Palm Point Educational Research School in USA and the Utena District Schools in Lithuania.

Funding

This project was supported by grants from the U.S. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (HD096457) and the European Social Fund (project No 09.3.3-LMT-K-712-17-0009) under grant agreement with the Research Council of Lithuania (LMTLT).

Data sharing declaration

The datasets are not publicly available but are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.

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Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

MPL-J participated in the study design and coordination, performed the measurement and statistical analyses, participated in the interpretation of the data, and drafted and revised the manuscript; SF participated in the study design and coordination, performed the measurement and statistical analyses, participated in the interpretation of the data, and drafted and revised the manuscript; GK participated in study design, and drafted and revised the manuscript; RZ participated in study design, and drafted and revised the manuscript; BL conceived the study, participated in its design and coordination, and drafted and revised the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Brett Laursen.

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Conflict of Interest

The authors declare no competing interests.

Ethical Approval

The study was approved by school officials and the Florida Atlantic University IRB (USA #135501-16) or ethics committee (Lithuania #6/-2020).

Informed Consent

Written parent consent and written child assent were required for participation.

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Leggett-James, M.P., Faur, S., Kaniušonytė, G. et al. The Perils of Not Being Attractive or Athletic: Pathways to Adolescent Adjustment Difficulties Through Escalating Unpopularity. J. Youth Adolescence 52, 2231–2242 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-023-01835-1

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-023-01835-1

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