PSYCHOLOGY AND EDUCATION – AN INTERDISCIPLINARY JOURNAL 79
Solitude in Children and Adolescents:
A Review of the Research Literature
Evangelia P. Galanaki
University of Athens, Greece
Psychology and Education: An Interdisciplinary Journal. Special Issue:
Loneliness and Solitude in Children and Adolescents, 2013, 50(3-4), 79-88.
Although there is a substantial body of research on loneliness in children and
adolescents, there is relatively less research evidence on solitude, as a state of being
alone, and more specifically, on facets of solitude such as attitude toward aloneness,
ability to be alone, and positive aloneness. In this paper, after some conceptual
clarifications, research is reviewed on understanding the nature of solitude;
affect of time alone; attitude toward aloneness; the links between solitude and
adjustment; and the associations between solitude and other aloneness
concepts. Finally, suggestions for future research on solitude in childhood and
adolescence are offered.
At this time, there is a substantial body of research on the subjective,
painful experience of loneliness in children and adolescents. Its frequency,
intensity and duration, as well as its antecedents and consequences, have been
systematically investigated (for reviews and recent research see Asher &
Paquette, 2003; Goossens, 2006; Margalit, 2010; Rokach, 2012; Rotenberg &
Hymel, 1999). However, relatively little research evidence exists on solitude,
that is, the state of being alone, and more specifically, on children’s and
adolescents’ understanding of solitude, attitude toward aloneness, ability to be
alone, and positive aloneness. Also, there are only a few studies attempting to
disentangle the complex links between the various aloneness experiences in
children and adolescents, by examining, for example, the association between
being alone and feeling lonely. These empirical investigations will be reviewed
here, with the aim of providing a clearer picture of the advancements and the
gaps in the research literature. More specifically, after some conceptual
clarifications, research will be reviewed on understanding and the nature of
solitude; affect of time alone; attitude toward aloneness; the links between
solitude and adjustment; and the associations between solitude and other
aloneness concepts. Finally, suggestions for future research on solitude in
childhood and adolescence will be offered.
Concepts of Aloneness
The terms aloneness, loneliness, and solitude appear to have been used
interchangeably in the literature, and this has resulted in conceptual confusion.
The three terms are not identical. Aloneness is the objective (physical), neutral
state of being alone. Loneliness is a subjective, painful experience, stemming
80 Solitude in Children and Adolescents
from a perceived lack of intimacy and/or belonging (Peplau & Perlman, 1982;
Weiss, 1973). Aloneness may or may not result in loneliness, and loneliness
may be experienced even in the presence of others. The desire or longing for
contact is a critical aspect of loneliness. Solitude is a state of aloneness which
may be either negative or positive. When negative, it can be equated with
loneliness; when positive, it is a constructive and beneficial experience. In this
sense, it is usually voluntary and occurs in the absence of others, though not
always (e.g., a student may feel solitary while studying in a public library).
Solitude is a vital social phenomenon, in the sense that it has a strong impact on
the social life of individuals and societies (Long & Averill, 2003). The desire for
aloneness and the “awareness of volition” (Wolfe & Laufer, 1974) are critical
aspects of solitude.
Although related, the term attitude toward aloneness is different from
solitude. The former is the individual’s positive or negative evaluation of
aloneness, while the latter is the constructive use of time alone (Marcoen &
Goossens, 1993). Also, the term ability to be alone has been operationally
defined and measured in ways similar to the attitude toward aloneness.
Several facets of solitude have been described, and the value of solitude in
our lives has been analyzed from various viewpoints. Winnicott (1958/1965)
introduced the “capacity to be alone” as a major developmental achievement and
regarded solitude in childhood as “a most precious possession” (p. 30). “Active
solitude” was described as a constructive use of time alone and as a preparation
for intimacy; “solitude skills” (as analogous to social skills) enable the
individual not to feel lonely when alone (Rubenstein & Shaver, 1982a). Various
forms of self reflection, personality development, and creative activity take
place during solitude (Storr, 1988). In cases of mental disorder, solitude may
become a “healing experience” (Suedfeld, 1982). This type of aloneness may be
an “ecological niche” (Larson, Csikszentimihalyi, & Graef, 1982), including
both benefits and dangers. Larson (1997) has also conceptualized solitude as
emotional renewal and a “strategic retreat” from social life. Others (Buchholz,
1997) have gone so far as regarding solitude as a developmental need equally
important to attachment throughout the life span.
Positive aloneness experiences during childhood and adolescence have been
rather neglected by researchers. Marcoen and Goossens (1993) have
acknowledged the lack of a measure of solitude for these age periods. Possible
explanations for this neglect may be the extremely painful character of
loneliness, which may have led researchers to avoid dealing with it; the common
belief in many cultures that being alone may be a pathological or dangerous
state; the long-standing view that children do not feel lonely, let alone use
aloneness constructively; and the ambivalent nature of aloneness, in the sense
that one can feel lonely when with others and not feel lonely when alone. This
ambivalence is reflected in the linguistic confusion among the various aloneness
concepts in several languages.
PSYCHOLOGY AND EDUCATION – AN INTERDISCIPLINARY JOURNAL 81
Understanding of Solitude
Children’s ability to understand solitude is a rather neglected area. With the
exception of one study (Demos, 1974), all other investigations showed that
during middle and late childhood, the ability to differentiate between the neutral
state of being alone and loneliness is active (Galanaki, 2004; Hymel, Tarulli,
Hayden Thomson, & Terrell-Deutsch, 1999; Kristensen, 1995; Wolfe, 1978;
Wolfe & Laufer, 1974). Children’s ability to understand the desire to be alone
and the fact that aloneness may have positive functions too, which is the essence
of solitude, is another neglected research topic. During early childhood, in
various cultures, this understanding appears to be limited, although it is not
absent (Galanaki, 2004; Wolfe, 1978; Wolfe & Laufer, 1974).
The majority of 7 year olds are able to define privacy, to which the
meanings of controlling access to information and being alone are most
frequently attributed; the understanding of “being alone when you want to”
appears at age 9, and of “being alone and unbothered” at age 11 (Wolfe &
Laufer, 1974). In this study, the ages between 7 and 13 seemed to be crucial for
the understanding of the meaning and the significance of aloneness.
Nature of Solitude
Children have been found to be able to articulate a variety of solitude uses,
which were the following: peace, quietude and relaxation; decrease of anxiety,
tension, and anger; reflection, problem-solving, planning ahead; daydreaming;
self-control and mastery; privacy/secrecy, freedom from criticism; activities;
and concentration (Galanaki, 2004).
Among adolescents, free-floating thought (e.g., fantasizing, daydreaming,
talking to self, thinking about past or future) was the most frequent type of
solitary activity, followed by various forms of passive entertainment other than
watching TV (e.g., listening to music, reading), sleeping, and personal grooming
(Larson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1978). Similar data emerged in another
investigation (Larson et al., 1982): housework, self-care, studying, watching TV,
personal reading. And a more detailed description of the content of solitude is
offered by Larson and Richards (1991), including school-age children also (9-15
year olds): media use, personal maintenance, schoolwork, playing games,
creative activities, eating, chores and errands, sports, transportation, and
socializing. When reviewing these findings, Larson (1990) categorized them
into productive activities (work at a job, schoolwork), maintenance tasks
(cooking, cleaning, personal care), and leisure activities (watching TV, reading,
listening to music, daydreaming).
Self-reflection is an important activity of adolescents’ time spent alone.
When explaining the positive change that had occurred in their lives during the
previous two years, adolescents referred to time alone as an opportunity to do
things, be constructive, reflect, and think (Freeman, Csikszentmihalyi, &
Larson, 1986); this has been found to be true especially for talented adolescents
82 Solitude in Children and Adolescents
(Csikszentimihalyi, Rathunde, & Whalen, 1993). Creative reflection emerged as
a crucial use of solitude among Italian adolescents too (Ammaniti, Ercolani, &
Tambelli, 1989). The positive attitude toward aloneness was found to be
associated with greater introspectiveness among Belgian adolescents (Goossens
& Marcoen, 1999a), and highly introspective adolescents spend more time alone
and engage in artistic and cultural activities (Hansel, Mechanic, & Brondolo,
1986). The existence and quality of self-reflection in time alone during
childhood has not been investigated yet. Also, research has not focused on the
benefits of solitude which have been found in adults (e.g. Long & Averill, 2003)
among children and adolescents, by means of, for example, a self-report
instrument assessing a variety of uses of voluntary aloneness.
Affect of Time Alone
During preadolescence, spending much time alone is correlated with less
positive average affect, although the correlations are modest (Larson &
Richards, 1991), and this affect does not improve from preadolescence through
early adolescence (Larson, 1997). The individual’s affective state when being
alone was found to include both positive and negative aspects during
adolescence. While they feel more lonely and hostile, less happy and alert, and
weaker and more passive when alone (Larson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1978),
adolescents also report improved cognitive state, that is, better concentration,
greater ease in concentration, and lower self-consciousness (Larson &
Csikszentmihalyi, 1980). Aloneness is experienced as the loneliest part of daily
life (Larson, 1999), and loneliness is highest when the adolescent is alone during
Friday or Saturday nights (Larson et al., 1982). These findings support the
ambivalence or the paradox of solitude (Larson, 1999): solitude may actively
being searched for due to its self-enhancing functions, but at the same time it
may be experienced as a painful state.
Some other investigations have shown no association between the positive
and the negative attitude toward aloneness (Goossens & Marcoen, 1999b;
Marcoen, Goossens, & Caes, 1987; Marcoen & Goossens, 1993) or a very weak
association (Goossens & Beyers, 2002) in late childhood and adolescence. These
findings seem to further support the paradoxical nature of solitude.
Attitude toward Aloneness
With the use of various methods (i.e., the experience sampling method,
sentence completion tests, and questionnaires), the attitude toward aloneness has
been found to be predominantly negative during preadolescence, when a gradual
shift to a more positive attitude is observed until the end of adolescence. This
age trend has been found in various countries: England, Italy, Belgium, New
Zealand, and the U.S.A. (Coleman, 1974; Corsano, Majorano, & Champretavy,
2006; Goossens & Marcoen, 1999a; Kroger, 1985; Larson, 1997; Larson &
Richards, 1991; Marcoen et al., 1987; Marcoen & Goossens, 1993). More
specifically, the crucial period for the decline of aversion to aloneness was in
early adolescence (i.e., from fifth to seventh grade), and for affinity for
PSYCHOLOGY AND EDUCATION – AN INTERDISCIPLINARY JOURNAL 83
aloneness the increase occurred between ages 15 and 18 (Marcoen & Goossens,
1993). Advances in reasoning skills, changes in social relationships and the
process of identity formation (see below, Solitude and Adjustment) have been
regarded as the factors contributing to this attitude shift (Goossens, 2006).
However, the results for the age trends are not always so clear. For
example, while the decreasing trend was found for the negative attitude toward
aloneness, the increasing trend for the positive attitude did not emerge from
preadolescence to late adolescence (Marcoen et al., 1987). Possible reasons for
these mixed findings may be, again, the ambivalent nature of solitude, the fact
that positive and negative facets of solitude have not been differentiated in all
these investigations, as well as the fact that different methods have been used to
assess attitude toward aloneness. Longitudinal research designs, covering a
broad range of age groups, are also needed in order to clarify this age trend.
Solitude and Adjustment
If solitude – at least some uses of it – is potentially beneficial, then it should
be positively associated with indices of adjustment and mental health. First of
all, solitude seems to have a positive after-effect for adolescents. After being
alone, adolescents were more alert, felt stronger, more involved and more
cheerful (Larson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1978; Larson et al., 1982). However, this
positive after-effect was not observed among preadolescents (Larson, 1997).
Social anxiety and depression were more likely among adolescents who
exhibited an affinity for aloneness (Goossens & Marcoen, 1999a). Potential
explanations, offered by the above researchers, for these associations are that the
subscale measuring the positive attitude toward aloneness contains many items
which tap a reactive rather than an active desire to be alone; or that some
adolescents use time alone constructively while some others do not; or that the
same adolescents make a beneficial use of time alone on some occasions, but
fail to do so on other occasions.
Evidence for the association of the attitude toward aloneness with the
process of identity formation as well as with the quality of attachment to parents
among adolescents emerged from some other investigations. One could expect
that affinity for aloneness, as a more mature attitude toward being alone, would
be characteristic of achievement identity status, which reflects a strong
commitment after a period of active exploration; and that securely attached
adolescents not only are not afraid of being alone but also seek solitude for its
benefits whereas dependently attached adolescents prefer being with others than
with themselves. However, research findings are not so clear. In one such study
(Marcoen & Goossens, 1993), adolescents with a diffused identity, that is, those
who had never gone through a period of exploration and had not arrived at a
strong commitment, had negative attitude toward aloneness, and adolescents
with an achieved status were more positive toward aloneness. Those with a
moratorium status, that is, those who were going through an exploration period
84 Solitude in Children and Adolescents
without having arrived at a strong commitment, also had positive views toward
being alone, perhaps because they retreat to aloneness to explore alternatives.
Also, those with high scores on a unidimensional identity scale (with which
identity achievement and intimacy with others were measured) had more
negative attitude toward aloneness. In the same study, contrary to expectations,
there were no differences between securely and insecurely attached adolescents
as to their attitude toward aloneness, but the dependently attached adolescents
were more averse toward being alone, as expected.
These mixed findings about attitude toward aloneness, and especially the
positive attitude, may be attributed to the content of the subscale measuring this
attitude, as discussed previously. When identity exploration and commitment
were measured separately (Goossens & Marcoen, 1999a), affinity for aloneness
did not distinguish among identity statuses, but was associated, as expected,
with more exploration of identity alternatives, thus supporting the positive role
of time alone during adolescence.
In another study (Goossens, Marcoen, Van Hees, & Van De Woestijne,
1998), rather expected findings emerged. Affinity for aloneness was
characteristic of insecurely attached adolescents, that is, those with avoidant and
anxious-ambivalent attachment types; and aversion to being alone was higher
among dependently attached adolescents.
All the above findings for identity and attachment underline the necessity of
future research in which the positive and negative uses of solitude will be more
clearly distinguished and measured. In this way, their associations with various
facets of adjustment and developmental processes during adolescence will be
For young children, the ability to be alone was connected with positive
adjustment: more autonomy, and less dependency and hostility, according to
teachers’ reports (Youngblade, Berlin, & Belsky, 1999). For adolescents, an
intermediate amount of time alone (i.e., 25%-45% of their non-classroom time)
was related to less alienation (Larson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1978), better school
grades, better teacher- and parent-rated adjustment and lower self-reported
depression, controlling for loneliness when alone (Larson, 1997, 1999). This
effect was not found for preadolescents, but those preadolescents and
adolescents who stated that they wanted to be alone rather than with others and
who felt relatively happier when alone were less well adjusted (Larson, 1997).
Thus, it seems that, although solitude can have positive effects on adjustment, a
reactive desire for solitude may be indicative of or conducive to adjustment
Associations among the Aloneness Concepts
A positive attitude toward aloneness has been found to correlate positively
with loneliness, especially peer-related loneliness, during middle and late
childhood (Goossens & Beyers, 2002; Terrell-Deutsch, 1999), and adolescence
PSYCHOLOGY AND EDUCATION – AN INTERDISCIPLINARY JOURNAL 85
(Corsano et al., 2006, for girls only; Goossens, Lasgaard, Vanhalst, Mathias, &
Masy, 2009; Goossens & Marcoen, 1999b; Marcoen & Goossens, 1993;
Marcoen et al., 1987).
Positive links with loneliness have been found even for the negative attitude
toward aloneness during preadolescence (Goossens & Beyers, 2002) and
adolescence (Marcoen et al., 1987). Moreover, affinity for aloneness was more
pronounced among adolescents who had fewer friends, had recently quarreled
with a same-sex friend, had a father who was working outdoors, had problems at
school, and a negative outlook on the future (Marcoen et al., 1987). In the same
study, negative views on being alone were evident in adolescents who had
argued with same-sex friends, were members of a formal youth movement and
attributed their aloneness to other people. The positive attitude was also related
to unsatisfactory relations with parents in early adolescence, whereas during late
adolescence this association did not exist, but a negative attitude toward
aloneness was related to better relations with peers from early to late
adolescence (Corsano et al., 2006). In another investigation (Larson &
Csikszentmihalyi, 1980), adolescents who had the most positive moods and felt
most free alone, relative to other times, were more alienated from family and
peers. And for fifth and sixth graders spending more time alone was correlated
with heightened loneliness, although the correlation was quite modest (Larson,
Possible explanations for these rather unexpected positive associations
between loneliness and the positive attitude toward aloneness may be that
individuals find in aloneness an attractive retreat from unsatisfactory social
relationships; or use aloneness as a protection from demanding and threatening
relationships; or end up feeling lonely because they enjoy solitude, find refuge
in it and, thus, their withdrawal restricts the quantity and quality of their
relationships; or state in a questionnaire that they like to be alone as a defense
(i.e., rationalization) against their painful loneliness feelings (see also Goossens
et al., 2009; Terrell-Deutsch, 1999). This latter explanation is supported by
Larson’s (1997) notion of a “misanthropy effect,” that is, a reactive rather than
an active desire to be alone (see also Marcoen & Goossens, 1993).
Other research data indicates that attitude toward aloneness and loneliness
are separate factors during late childhood (Goossens & Beyers, 2002) and
adolescence (Goossens et al., 2009). Similarly, the correlations between
preference for privacy and privacy on the one hand and loneliness on the other,
although positive, were weak for adolescents (Marcoen & Goossens, 1993).
Finally, there is a body of research data indicating no relation between
ability to be alone/aversion to being alone and loneliness in early (Youngblade
et al., 1999) and middle childhood (Terrell-Deutsch, 1999; only for aversion).
Young children who were more averse to being alone were found to spend more
time in peer settings, thus protecting themselves from loneliness (Youngblade et
86 Solitude in Children and Adolescents
al., 1999). Also, surprisingly, no relation was found between friendship quality
and ability to be alone, a finding that may be explained by the fact that children
who are better able to be alone invest less in friendships. Also, no relation was
found for aversion to being alone, which may mean that the interaction with
friends is enough, regardless of its quality.
All the above conflicting data, together with the finding that the positive
and the negative attitude toward aloneness do not have a strong negative
association with each other (Goossens & Marcoen, 1999; Goossens & Beyers,
2002; Marcoen & Goossens, 1993; Marcoen et al., 1987), support the paradox of
solitude and may be partly attributed to it.
Conclusions and Future Directions
If solitude is a basic human need, equally important to attachment and
belonging (Buchholz, 1999; Winnicott, 1958/1965), it is necessary to explore its
multiple positive contributions to children’s development. Special attention
should be given to the multidimensionality of solitude. Future research should
focus on distinguishing between healthy and unhealthy uses of solitude. The
content of solitude, especially in childhood, constitutes a highly neglected topic.
We still have much to learn about issues such as how the benefits of solitude
fluctuate with age; which dimensions of solitude are most beneficial in each age
period; and whether, with age, individuals want to be alone for more intrinsic
reasons than before. Definitely more research is needed on the impact of culture
on children’s and adolescents’ solitude experiences, given the frequent
complaint of people about not having enough time on their own as well as the
dangers of some aloneness states. Developmental research will open the way to
a pedagogy of solitude (Galanaki, 2005), which may enable children to not only
tolerate, but enjoy aloneness as well.
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