Changes in Adolescent Loneliness and Concomitant Changes in Fear of Negative Evaluation and Self-Esteem


Flore Geukens, KU Leuven, Belgium
Marlies Maes, KU Leuven, Research Foundation Flanders, Belgium; Utrecht University, The Netherlands
Annette Spithoven, KU Leuven, Belgium
J. Loes Pouwels, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Sofie Danneel, KU Leuven, Belgium
Antonius H.N. Cillessen, Radboud University, The Netherlands
Yvonne H.M. van den Berg, Radboud University, The Netherlands
Luc Goossens, KU Leuven, Belgium


Loneliness is an aversive state in which people feel dissatisfied with their social relationships. Previous research on the development of loneliness found that, in general, loneliness peaks at the age of 13 and decreases afterwards throughout adolescence. Notwithstanding this average trend of decreasing loneliness in adolescence, various studies have found evidence for individual differences in the development of loneliness. The evolutionary theory of loneliness, one of the leading theoretical accounts of loneliness, suggests that negative cognitions could be associated with the development of feelings of loneliness. However, it remains unclear which specific cognitions are associated with these developmental changes in loneliness during adolescence. This knowledge is crucial for the prevention and treatment of loneliness in adolescence.


A sample of Dutch adolescents (N = 1174; 50% female) in Grades 7 to 10 completed well-established measures of loneliness, fear of negative evaluation, and self-esteem on four measurement occasions with yearly intervals. Latent Growth Curve Models were estimated for each construct in Mplus. Correlations among both initial levels (i.e., intercepts) and rates of change (i.e., slopes) for these three variables were examined using a Parallel Process Model (PPM).


In line with the expectations, initial levels of loneliness were positively associated with initial levels of fear of negative evaluation (r = .66, p < .001). Adolescents who felt more lonely in Grade 7 were more fearful of negative evaluation. Moreover, the development of loneliness was positively associated with the development of fear of negative evaluation (r = .61, p < .001). Adolescents whose loneliness increased, also increased with regard to fear of negative evaluation. Also in line with our expectations, we found that initial levels of loneliness and self-esteem were negatively associated (r = -.63, p < .001). Adolescents who felt more lonely in Grade 7 had lower self-esteem. Moreover, the development of loneliness was negatively associated with the development of self-esteem (r = -.52, p < .01). Adolescents whose feelings of loneliness increased, showed a decrease in self-esteem over time and vice versa.


Higher levels of loneliness were associated with greater fear of negative evaluation and lower self-esteem. Moreover, an increase in loneliness over time was associated with an increase in fear of negative evaluation and a decrease in self-esteem. These findings are in line with the evolutionary theory of loneliness which states that fear of negative evaluation and self-esteem may play a role in the development and maintenance of loneliness in adolescence as they could hamper adolescents’ efforts to reconnect to others.

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