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The Role of Cognitive Flexibility in the Association between Anxiety and Social Competence in Early Adolescence

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Title: The Role of Cognitive Flexibility in the Association between Anxiety and Social Competence in Early Adolescence
Author: Dalley, Jessica
Department: Department of Psychology
Program: Psychology
Advisor: Young, Arlene
Abstract: Early adolescence, the period of development that occurs between ages 11-14, is considered a sensitive period for the development of social competence. Social competence is the ability to maintain relationships while simultaneously achieving personal goals in social interactions. Essential to social competence is social cognition, the underlying thought processes through which one interprets the social world, then chooses and enacts a behavioural response, optimally leading to skilled social functioning. Social competence requires being able to adapt behavioral responses to dynamic, changing social interactions. Individual differences in anxiety are associated with youth over-relying on avoidance as a social strategy; this comes at significant developmental cost, because peer interaction is critical for the practice of adaptive social strategies. Cognitive flexibility, which enables someone to adapt cognitive or behavioural rule sets and generate new strategies based on feedback, may play an important role in youth generating a breadth of social strategies. The current study was a multi-method, multi-informant exploration of the relation between social competence, anxiety, and cognitive flexibility. The first objective was to better understand the relationship between cognitive flexibility, anxiety, and social competence. The second objective was to explore the strategies that anxious youth generate in response to social problems, including the association between cognitive flexibility and 1) the quantity of social strategies generated, 2) the developmental sophistication of social strategies generated, and 3) the specific content of social strategy chosen by anxious youth. In contrast to hypotheses, no associations were found among anxiety, cognitive flexibility, and social competence, and a predicted moderation effect was not found. Further, cognitive flexibility and anxiety were not related to the number or type of social strategies generated by youth. Problems in the measurement of cognitive flexibility and high attrition of parents may have prevented a good test of hypotheses. While the predicted results were not found, adolescents’ responses highlighted other individual (e.g., age, gender) and environmental factors (e.g., context of interaction) that could influence their social problem-solving. Suggestions for future research regarding the association among emotional, cognitive, and social development during early adolescence are offered.
Date: 2021-06-01
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