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Parents, Children, And Loneliness

Social scientists frequently debate questions of heredity versus the environment. In the origins of loneliness, both appear to have a role. Consistent with there being an inherited component to loneliness, in a 2000 study (McGuire and Clifford 2000) both siblings and twins had some similarity in their levels of loneliness, but the similarity was greater for identical twins than for either fraternal twins or singleton siblings.

Researchers have also checked for an association between parents and their children in the likelihood of being lonely. Working with older parents (85 or older) and their mid-life children, M. V. Long and Peter Martin (2000) did not find evidence of intergenerational similarity. In contrast, J. Lobdell and Daniel Perlman (1986) administered questionnaires to 130 female undergraduates and their parents. As expected, they demonstrated that the parents' loneliness scores were modestly correlated with those of their daughters. Of course, such an association could be explained by either genetic or environmental factors.

To explore possible psychosocial factors, Lobdell and Perlman also had the university students in their study rate their parents' marriages and childrearing practices. Lonely students depicted their parents as having relatively little positive involvement with them. This is one of several studies showing the cold, remote picture of parent-child relations reported by lonely young adults. They also saw their parents as having lower than average marital satisfaction. This finding compliments other studies showing that children whose parents divorce are at risk for loneliness, especially if the divorce occurs early in the child's life. These findings can be interpreted within an environmental framework. In sum, the work on the origins of loneliness suggests that both genetic and family factors each play a role in levels of loneliness, although nonfamilial environmental influences are likely also critical.

The parental contribution to children's loneliness is not simply a one-time input. Instead, loneliness bidirectionally intertwines with parent-child relations over the life-cycle. A first noteworthy lifespan phenomenon is that in the transition to parenthood, women who are lonely during their pregnancy are at higher risk for postpartum depression.

In infancy, children are highly dependent upon their parents and caretakers. As they get older, peer relations become more important. Along with this shift comes a shift in what type of relations are most closely linked with loneliness. In the middle elementary years, it is the quality of children's relationships with their mothers. In late adolescence, it is the quality of university students' relationships with their peers.

Concerning more mature children, Pauline Bart (1980) has analyzed how children's leaving home affects middle-aged mothers. She concluded that women who adopt the traditional role of being homemakers devoted to their children are prone to experience greater loneliness and depression when their children leave home than are women less invested in a maternal, homemaker role.

For many people, one perceived benefit of having children in the first place is the notion that they will provide comfort and support in old age. As far as loneliness goes, there is evidence challenging this view. Tanya Koropeckyj-Cox (1998) looked at older adults with and without children. Contrary to common belief, the results didn't show a clear advantage of having children. A second line of research has examined whether family or friends are more strongly associated with avoiding loneliness in old age. Martin Pinquart and Silvia Sorensen's (2001) meta-analysis, a technique for statistically combining the results of several studies, shows the primary role of friends as opposed to family members in buffering seniors from loneliness.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelationshipsLoneliness - Concept And Prevalence, Loneliness And Marriage, Parents, Children, And Loneliness, Relationship Endings And Loneliness