In recent years, as more and more farmers found jobs in city and left their kids at home, left-behind adolescents have remarkably increased in China. Meanwhile, their psychological and behavioral problems are serious and need much attention. Left-behind adolescents refer to adolescents under the age of 18 who are left at home because of their parents or single parents working outside for a long time (Zhao et al., 2008). Adolescence is the key period of their academic and physical and mental development (Lopez-Zafra et al., 2019). However, compared with non-left-behind adolescents, left-behind adolescents lack of parental accompany and positive responses, thus it’s hard to cultivate good parent-child relationship and form secure attachment (Ainsworth et al. 1978). Then, this insecure attachment may hinder adolescents’ learning of social ability, resulting in poor psychology and social adaptation. Besides, they are sensitive to others’ words and behavior, and they may be also more likely to be rejected by peers, thus leading to external behavioral problems or internal psychological and emotional problems (Shamir-Essakow et al., 2005; van Brakel et al., 2006). Specially, social adaptation and communication problems of left-behind adolescents are particularly prominent, and it’s vital to pay more attention to their mental health and alleviation of social anxiety and social avoidance (Li & Cai, 2012).
1.1 Social withdrawal
Social withdrawal is a comprehensive term, which refers to the individual who is willing to isolate himself/herself to familiar or unfamiliar others and consistently perform some solitary behavior (Rubin et al. 2009), such as shyness, long periods of solitude, avoidance of social contact. The model of developmental of social withdrawal believes that safe parent-child relationship is a crucial basis for development of children’s social ability, which supports them to freely explore society and maintain good interpersonal relationships; besides, when parents response timely to children’s needs, children will attain the feeling of control over the environment and self-efficacy in social skill learning (Ainsworth et al., 1978; Bowlby, 1969). However, for left-behind adolescents, insecure attachment may bring negative experience of interpersonal interaction (Ainsworth et al. 1978). Their limited social resources make it difficult to learn social ability efficiently, therefore resulting in social withdrawal (Hastings et al., 2019).
Social withdrawal may also have bad impact on adolescents’ development. Socially withdrawn adolescents have difficulty taking the initiative to cultivate relationships with peers (Asendorpf & Meier, 1993; Coplan et al. 2008, Crozier & Perkins, 2002), and their poor social communication ability make it difficult to develop social emotions, thus leading to social maladjustment (Bohlin et al., 2005; Bowker et al., 2014; Bass et al., 2016; Barzeva et al., 2019; Chen et al., 2006; Nelson et al., 2005; Nelson et al., 2020). Specifically, adolescents who behave social withdrawal in social occasions are easy to be regarded as the outlier by their peers, then they may be ignored and rejected by them (Chen et al., 2006; Olweus & Breivik, 2014), even bullied by aggressive peers (Rubin et al., 2006). Thus, they will grow feelings of loneliness or depression (Coplan et al., 2007; Prior et al., 2000). Due to the prominent social withdrawal of left-behind adolescents, which has a negative impact on the healthy development of them, it is of great importance to explore left-behind adolescents’ influential mechanism of social withdrawal in depth, so as to provide some intervention measures to improve the current situation.
1.2 Social support and social withdrawal
The model of developmental of social withdrawal believes that insecure parent-child relationship and negative interpersonal interaction experience are the important factors to cause individual social withdrawal (Ainsworth et al., 1978; Bowlby, 1969). Therefore, it’s particularly important to support left-behind adolescents and provide them interpersonal resources. As one of the interpersonal resources, social support means the support and concern given by others (Brugha, 1990). Social support can protect children’s mental health and promote healthy behavior and active psychological responses (Cohen & Wills, 1985; House et al.,1988; Lakery & Orehek, 2011).
More specifically, the positive effect of social support can work in two aspects. On the one hand, social-cognitive process theory holds that positive social interaction can promote individual cognitive adaptation (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004; Kong et al., 2018). It also holds that social support is a kind of supportive social environment which provide individual potential social resources (Mo et al., 2014; Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004; Xu & Yuan, 2014), and prevent negative environment attribution and emotion caused by the lacking of environment resources (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Thus, individual could deal with various problems effectively and enhance the skills of coping setback (Yuan et al., 2018). On the other hand, social support is a feeling of being concerned, understood, accepted, respected and cherished (Kane et al., 2012; Reis & Shaver, 1988). While a positive interpersonal experience for individuals can improve their self-evaluation and control over environment（Feeney & Collins, 2015）, develop social ability, promote social approach motivation, and actively construct new interpersonal relationships (Reis et al., 2010). Many studies showed that instrumental support can negatively predict social withdrawal (Nonaka & Sakai, 2021), and social support can relieve negative mental states or behavioral reactions, such as depression, sleep disorders and social withdrawal. (Ginter et al., 1994; Li et al., 2015; Seyyedmoharrami et al., 2018; Xiao et al., 2020；Zuo et al., 2021).
1.3 The Mediating role of relative deprivation between social support and social withdrawal
Due to the lack of family support, left-behind adolescents have less psychological and material resources than their peers, and they are likely to think that they do not gain what they deserve, which results in a sense of relative deprivation. Relative deprivation means that compared to the referenced target, the individual or the ingroup is in a relatively disadvantaged position, and this kind of judgement invokes the feelings of anger, resentment and entitlement (Smith & Pettigrew, 2015). Relative deprivation theory believes the entitlement and feeling of deserving are the core of relative deprivation. In the process of social comparison, individuals realize that there is a gap between their expectation value and reality; when they experience that their basic rights are deprived, they will have a strong sense of injustice (Smith et al., 2012). This further leads to depression, loneliness, social anxiety or other psychological problems (Ladd & Troop-Gordon, 2003; Moreira & Telzer, 2015). Past studies indicated that relative deprivation had crucial influence on children’s mental adaptation (Eibner et al., 2004; Smith & Huo, 2014; Callan et al., 2015). It might cause individual behaviorally react different to environment. When faced with the threatened situation, individual might become anger because of injustice feelings, they might be hostile to others, and then attack or hurt others (Greitemeyer & Sagioglou, 2019). When faced with the insecure situation, individual might become fearful and generate social avoidance motivation to escape from this threat (Devos et al., 2003; Osborne et al., 2012). However, regardless of situations individuals faced with, they would have a more negative interpersonal relationship experience and have difficulty constructing harmonious peer relationship actively.
Nevertheless, social-cognitive process theory suggests that social support can accelerate individual cognitive adaptation process (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004; Kong et al., 2018). When the support system from left-behind adolescents’ families is lack, individual can receive enough social support from others, thus reducing the sense of injustice and relative deprivation. Relative research also verified that the higher social support the college students had, the weaker the relative deprivation they would feel (Zhang & Tao, 2013). Further, individual would feel less hostility and fear to environment or others with reduction of relative deprivation, and then the social avoidance motivation and social withdrawal behavior would also decrease (Devos et al., 2003; Greitemeyer & Sagioglou, 2019; Osborne et al., 2012). Therefore, this study hypothesized that relative deprivation played a mediating role between social support and social withdrawal.
1.4 The mediating role of resilience between social support and social withdrawal
Resilience refers to the factor that promotes individual's effective coping and adaptation under the pressure, frustration or adversity (Masten et al., 2011). It is an important ability to recover from adversity and maintain good mental functioning under pressure (Laird et al., 2019; Theron & Theron, 2010). Besides, it can effectively predict the social behavior of disadvantaged children (Rahat & Ilhan, 2016), and is also a protective factor for their behavior problems (Breda, 2017; Theron & Theron, 2010). More importantly, it can decrease individual social withdrawal (Yang et al., 2021). As an important psychological protective factor, the development of resilience is closely related to the growing environment of children, in which a good family circumstance helps its development (Lopez & Snyder, 2009). In the process of interaction between children and their parents, they will form an overall understanding of themselves and make judgments about their own abilities and values, which will also affect the development of individual self-efficacy (Li et al., 2021). However, for left-behind adolescents, the unsound family functions affect their sense of self-worth, making them difficult to adopt a positive attitude when facing pressure, and hindering the healthy development of their resilience (Deb et al., 2015; Li et al., 2021).
Individuals with high resilience can recover their positive state of mind after negative emotional experiences, thus alleviate the negative effects of negative experiences and find positive meanings in these dilemmas (Seaton & Beaumont, 2015; Tugade & Fredrickson, 2004). From this perspective, social support can also provide individuals with positive emotional experience and promote the positive psychological adaptation of individual when facing adversity (Oh et al., 2014; Seidmahmoodi et al., 2011), which in turn contributes to the improvement of resilience. Previous studies have indeed found positive effects of social support on resilience (Li et al., 2012; Mo et al., 2014). According to “context-process-outcome” model proposed by Roeser (1996), individual characteristics can play a mediate role between school environment factors and their behavior outcomes. Therefore, some researchers have found that resilience, an individual characteristic, can mediate the relationship between teacher-student relationship and related behavioral outcomes of social withdrawal, while teacher-student relationship is regarded as a factor of school environment (Yang et al., 2021). Therefore, this study also assumed that resilience could mediate the relationship between social support and social withdrawal.
In addition, based on the triadic theory of learning and the “context-process-outcome” model, individual cognition, behavior and environmental factors interact with each other (Bandura, 1978; Roeser et al., 1996). As an important factor of individual environment, social support can have a direct effect on individual's social withdrawal, and can also affect individual's social withdrawal behavior by influencing their cognitive process and psychological characteristics (Ginter et al.,1994; Yang et al., 2021; Zhang & Tao, 2013). Specifically, the individual's cognitive evaluation of environmental conditions, namely the individual's cognitive process, results in relative deprivation, and the judgment of disadvantaged position and the negative emotions will affect the individual's psychological adaptation function (Eibner et al., 2004; Smith & Huo, 2014; Callan et al., 2015). Although there has no study directly investigating the relationship between relative deprivation and resilience, some researchers believed that people with high relative deprivation would experience the unfair environment, be disappointed with the current environment, and believe future is hard to improve (de la Sablonnie`re et al., 2015). This may also affect the resilience of individuals facing pressure and difficulties which as a function of psychological adaptation, and then change the behavior, namely social withdrawal. Therefore, this study also hypothesized that relative deprivation and resilience played a chain mediating role between social support and social withdrawal.
The present research aimed to explore left-behind adolescents’ and non-left-behind adolescents’ states of social support, social withdrawal, relative deprivation and resilience, and explore the left-behind adolescents’ influential mechanism of social withdrawal. Based on the triadic theory of learning and the “context-process-outcome” model, we proposed a chain mediation model (see in Fig. 1). The social support system of left-behind adolescents which was regarded as environmental background would influence their interpretation of the environment. We assumed that there was a significant negative correlation between social support and social withdrawal. In addition, relative deprivation and resilience mediated the relationship between social support and social withdrawal.