Monash University

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Understanding adolescent loneliness : longitudinal and cross-sectional relationships with attachment, emotion regulation, and coping.

posted on 2017-02-14, 02:14 authored by Heinrich , Liesl Michelle
Loneliness is an emotionally unpleasant experience which is associated with a host of psychosocial and mental health problems, such as low self-esteem, poor social skills, fewer and poorer quality friendships, social anxiety, depression, poorer life satisfaction, and suicidal thoughts and behaviour (e.g., see Heinrich & Gullone, 2006, for a review). It affects as many as 74% of adolescents in any given 12 month period (Fleming & Jacobsen, 2009), with painful and persistent feelings of loneliness experienced by 10% to 20% of adolescents (Brennan, 1982). Yet, despite loneliness appearing to be more prevalent in adolescence than in any other stage of the life cycle, adolescent loneliness has received relatively little research attention -particularly with regards to investigating possible causal mechanisms. Therefore, this thesis sought to redress this imbalance in the loneliness research literature by examining potential aetiological factors in adolescent loneliness. Since loneliness is "an enduring condition of emotional distress" (Rook, 1984, p. 1391), it was proposed that how adolescents manage their emotions and cope with distress may be an important factor underlying the development and maintenance of loneliness. Moreover, drawing upon attachment theory, it was argued that to the extent that the quality of attachment experiences influence social, cognitive, emotional, and personality development they may consequently influence loneliness. For Study I, both cross-sectional and short-term longitudinal designs were employed, and 323 adolescents (aged 12 to 17 years) completed measures of loneliness, attachment quality, emotion regulation, and coping. A substantial proportion (28%) of the adolescents surveyed experienced chronic feelings of global loneliness, and approximately half felt lonely at any given point in time. Attachment, emotion regulation, and coping were found to be predictive of loneliness both cross-sectionally, as well as seven months later. Supporting the assertion of a likely aetiological role in loneliness, the chronically lonely were found to have poorer attachment relationships with their parents and peers, and adopt more maladaptive emotion regulation and coping strategies than their nonlonely counterparts. Hence, it emerged that adolescents' attachment relationships, and their emotion regulation/coping strategies emerged as two salient mechanisms underlying loneliness. Attachment theory proposes that one's early experiences with caregivers are internalised in the form of working models which provide a blueprint that guides one's perceptions, expectations and social interactions, as well as how one experiences, expresses, and regulates emotion and distress into adulthood (Cooper, Shaver, & Collins, 1998). Study 1 did not permit the examination of interrelationships between attachment and emotion regulation/coping, and so a second study was conducted in which 202 adolescents (aged 13 to 16 years) completed the same measures used previously. Replicating the first study's findings, moderate-to-strong associations were found between adolescent loneliness and attachment, emotion regulation, and coping. Moreover, the results of the second study extended the Study 1 findings by demonstrating that the effects of attachment and emotion regulation/coping were interrelated, and therefore do not represent mutually exclusive mechanisms underlying adolescent loneliness. It was shown that the relationship between attachment and adolescent loneliness was at least partially mediated by emotion regulation and coping. Together, these two studies fill a void in the loneliness literature by revealing that adolescents' attachment relationships, and how they manage their emotions and cope with distress, play substantial roles in adolescent loneliness. However, whilst substantial proportions of the variability in global, social, and family loneliness were found to be accounted for by attachment, emotion regulation, and coping, this was not the case for romantic loneliness. Thus, further research is needed to better understand the nature of romantic loneliness in adolescence. Implications for interventions are also discussed.


Principal supervisor

Eleonora Gullone-Parhar

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Psychological Sciences

Campus location



Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type



Faculty of Medicine Nursing and Health Sciences

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