Are You Lonely?

Vicki Glembocki
September 01, 1993

"Is it hard to get kids at school to like you? Are there kids you can go to when you need help in school? Are you lonely at school?"

When kindergarten and first graders were asked these questions as part of a psychological study of loneliness and peer relations, approximately 10 percent of the children admitted to feeling lonely—"When no one's gonna play with you," as one child answered, "And you feel kinda sad, an' no one will play with you, and you start feeling lonely."

"These are little people, this high." Jude Cassidy, assistant professor of psychology at Penn State, raised her palm to the height of her desk. "That's a chunk of kids, and so little, to just feel really alone."

In 1987, Cassidy came across a theory published in a book in 1973 by psychologist Robert S. Weiss that deemed young children incapable of feeling lonely, of "being alone and feeling sad about it," because their parents maintained such an involved and central position in their lives. The theory had never been disputed; but Cassidy realized her observations of children today didn't match Weiss' 20 year-old study. With Steve Asher of the University of Illinois, Cassidy developed a questionnaire that four University of Illinois graduate students used to interview 440 children from seven kindergarten and 15 first-grade public school classrooms in a Midwestern community.

When she and Asher analyzed their results, they found that a significant number of the children exhibited considerable loneliness: 13.4 percent responded no, they didn't have a lot of friends at school; 10.5 percent said that there were no kids to go to when they needed help; and 11.8 percent answered yes, they felt lonely at school.

"They really have an idea in their minds that 'Yeah, I'm lonely' or 'No, I'm not so lonely,'" Cassidy explained. "No matter how you ask the question, how many different ways and times, it looks like they do have a sense of themselves in that way and that they can talk about it."

The study also revealed that lonely children behaved differently: they were less friendly, more aggressive, more shy, and more disruptive. This observation, as Cassidy noted, is convergent with the literature describing loneliness and behavior in adults. Over the past 10 years, she explained, psychologists have grown more interested in peer relations, specifically in research focusing on young children and the connection between peer relations and later functioning. "The way kids get along with other children, as early as elementary school," Cassidy said, "is useful in predicting juvenile delinquency, drop-out, aggression, and even social functioning in adulthood."

Having shown that young children were capable of feeling lonely, Cassidy turned her attention to finding other factors possibly related to childhood loneliness. With graduate student Lisa J. Berlin and professor Jay Belsky of Penn State's department of human development and family studies, these researchers are examining the parents' role in a lonely child's life. Combining the observations from a standard laboratory procedure in which a mother and her year-old child are briefly separated and then reunited, with the questionnaire from the first study administered to the same child five years later, Cassidy and her colleagues are testing their prediction that one precursor of early childhood loneliness may be insecure parental attachment.

"The theory is that children who are securely attached early on, that is, who have warm relationships with parents who are loving and accepting of them, come to trust that that's the way people are going to be," Cassidy explains. "So, when they start going to school and meeting other children, they are trusting of others, and they treat other people the way they have been treated—kindly, respectfully. They have good self-esteem and good coping abilities. They're well-functioning little kindergartners. When they start interacting with other kids, they're behaving in ways that get them liked."

Cassidy and Asher are also studying the expectations of young lonely children. "We found so far that children who are better liked have more positive expectations about ending loneliness." Well-liked children believe other people will help them, that they will help other lonely children, and that whenever they feel lonely, they'll be able to help themselves, Cassidy said.

Currently, Cassidy is looking at children after first grade, to see how their understanding of loneliness develops. "As adults," she explains, "we have a very sophisticated understanding of loneliness. There's a lot we can say about it that first graders can't." Adults, for example, can differentiate between solitude and loneliness, between being alone and feeling lonely. "When do kids get more sophisticated?" Cassidy asks. "When do they come to understand all the subtleties that we now know?" Conducting the study in a Pennsylvania school district, Cassidy is interviewing first, fourth, seventh, and tenth graders to observe how concepts of loneliness change.

"But knowing children's understanding isn't enough," Cassidy said. "We want to help the children." All four of her loneliness studies ultimately lead to "the $64,000 question," as Cassidy calls it. "You've got the lonely children identified, you've called them, you bring them all into this room—there they are. What are you going to do with them?"

Jude Cassidy, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the department of psychology, College of the Liberal Arts, 514 Moore Building, University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-1729. "Loneliness and Peer Relations in Young Children" was published in 1992 in Child Development. Steve Asher is a professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Last Updated September 01, 1993