The Relationship of Social Support to Depressive Symptoms during the Transition to High School

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

For many adolescents, high school is a long-awaited change in status, accompanied by new freedoms and new challenges. Nonetheless, the transition to high school is often associated with negative outcomes including poorer attendance, declines in grades, newly emerging discipline problems, and new feelings of alienation or social rejection. Efforts to account for these changes typically focus on school size, greater anonymity, more challenging academic work, changes in the rule structure, and less adult monitoring. Increasing attention is being paid to the sense of school belonging or connectedness as a factor that contributes to success in this transition. However, few studies have examined the changes in social support that occur between the 8th and 9th grade and their impact on high school adjustment. The current study considers three sources of social support--family, peers, and school belonging--each of which could be disrupted or enhanced in the transition to high school. Two basic questions guide this research. First, what are the changes in the social support system in the transition to high school? Second, what is the relationship between each source of social support and adjustment, especially depressive symptoms?

Background

Adolescent development is shaped significantly by the school environment. Yet, little empirical study has focused specifically on changes in social support in the transition from eighth to ninth grade. Theoretical models that attempt to account for students' adaptations to high school typically do not consider concurrent changes in the students' relationships with their peers, family, and school adults during the transition to ninth grade (Eccles, Lord, & Buchanan, 1996; Simmons & Blyth, 1987). The transition into the new academic environment may have negative consequences for some adolescents. Previous research has associated the following negative outcomes with the transition from junior high to high school: poorer attendance (Barone, Aguirre-Deandries, & Trickett, 1991; Moyer & Motta, 1982; Weldy, 1990); declines in grade point average (Barone et al., 1991; Blyth, Simmons, & Carlton-Ford, 1983); discipline problems associated with experiencing change to a new school building, moving from self-contained to departmentalized classes, or encountering a different educational philosophy (Moyer & Motta, 1982; Weldy, 1990); and decreased participation in extracurricular activities (Blyth et al., 1983; Seidman, Alber, Allen, & French, 1996; Gifford & Dean, 1990). Some disruptions in school achievement, behavior, and self-concept are associated with school transitions whenever they occur; and the more school transitions a student encounters, the more likely it is that students will show evidence of the negative consequences noted above (Alspaugh, 1998).

A growing literature highlights the importance of social support for health, life-satisfaction, and positive adjustment. Human beings have a fundamental need to form and maintain positive, enduring interpersonal relationships. The satisfaction of these needs is associated with positive outcomes while deprivation or disruption of these relationships is associated with negative outcomes (Anderman, 2002; Deci, Vallerland, Pelletier, & Ryan, 1991). Contact with specific individuals who share a close, affectionate bond is associated with feelings of pleasure, calm, and reduced anxiety (Carter, 2002). Separation from those who are socially valued, and the threat of social exclusion are sources of emotional distress (Panksepp, 1998).

Social support helps to buffer the impact of stressful life events as it provides the emotional qualities associated with a sense of belonging, and the information needed to minimize the physically or psychologically deleterious outcomes of life events (Connelly, 1993). Hussong (2000) found that adolescents who are less socially connected and who do not benefit from a close, positive relationship are less likely to receive emotional and physical support in times of stress. …