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Why Do Chronically Lonely Teens Stay Lonely?

Teenage girl (15-17) sitting in locker room on bench, portrait

Lonely teenage girl (15) sitting in locker room on bench

Some adolescents respond to social situations in ways that may perpetuate rather than reduce their feelings of loneliness. They tend to attribute social inclusion to coincidence, and blame some personal flaw when they are excluded by their peers.

For chronically lonely adolescents, even the rare invitation to a social event is likely to be met with suspicion: “It’s not that I’m worthy, I just got lucky”, they’ll tell themselves. And when not included in a gathering of peers, the chronically lonely teen will attribute it to some personal flaw.

Researchers from KU Leuven, Duke University, and Ghent University analysed four annual questionnaires filled out by 730 Belgian adolescents. They found that most adolescents did not experience high levels of loneliness – or if they did, it was only temporary – but they also found that a small subgroup of adolescents felt lonely year after year. These chronically adolescents had a stronger tendency to attribute social inclusion to circumstances instead of their own merit, and to attribute social exclusion to their own shortcomings.

Self-defeating thoughts

“Chronically lonely adolescents seem to interpret social inclusion and exclusion situations in a self-defeating way”, says Janne Vanhalst from the KU Leuven Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences, who conducted part of her research at Duke University.

“These self-defeating interpretations not only make them feel worse after being socially excluded, but also less enthusiastic when being socially included”, Vanhalst continues. “Therefore, loneliness interventions should try to change the ways adolescents think and feel about social situations, to break the vicious cycle of chronic loneliness.”

Chronically lonely adolescents seem to interpret social inclusion and exclusion situations in a self-defeating way.

The study focused on loneliness in late adolescence (ages 15 to 18 when data collection began), because this developmental period is characterised by many changes in social expectations, roles, and relationships. It is also when adolescents start spending more time with peers and develop more stable, intimate peer relationships.

Response to social scenarios

Part of the study presented short scenarios involving social inclusion and social exclusion, asking participants to rate what they would think and how they would feel in those situations.

Examples of the scenarios included:

— “A new lunch place opened in town, and they are giving away free sandwiches today. Some of your classmates are going there for lunch and they ask you if you want to join them” (social inclusion situation).

— “You open your Facebook account and see that many of your classmates have been tagged in an album. You have a look at the pictures in the album, and you notice that the pictures were taken several days ago at the birthday party of one of your classmates. You were not invited” (social exclusion situation).

The researchers found that chronically lonely adolescents reported more negative emotions (including sadness, disappointment, anger, jealousy, offense, anxiety, and insecurity) in response to social exclusion, and were more likely to attribute social exclusion to their own personal characteristics.

In situations involving social inclusion, chronically lonely adolescents were less enthusiastic than adolescents in other loneliness groups, and they were more likely to attribute social inclusion to coincidence.

Breaking the vicious cycle

Although these adolescents may want to be more socially integrated, their thoughts and feelings may get in the way. “Adolescents with a history of chronic loneliness seem to be responding to social situations in ways that may perpetuate their loneliness,” says Molly Weeks from Duke University. “Future research should investigate when and how temporary loneliness becomes chronic and figure out how we can prevent that from happening.”

Professor Steven Asher from Duke University adds: “We know from previous research that loneliness is affected by how well people are accepted by peers, by whether they have friends, and by the quality and closeness of their friendships. An important next step is to learn whether helping lonely adolescents make less negative interpretations in social situations facilitates the development of more satisfying relationships and promotes lower levels of loneliness.”

Click here to read the original study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Copies can also be obtained from the authors.

Adapted from the news release by Duke University (16 December 2015) with permission. 

Source: KU Leuven, Leuven University

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