4 Reasons Your Teenager Wants to (and Needs to) Be Alone
Solitude helps them more than you realize.
Posted Jul 01, 2019
It’s no secret that as children turn into adolescents, they increasingly want to be alone. You might notice them physically retreat from you (their bedroom door seems to be closed a lot, doesn’t it?) or find that their formerly chatty selves have suddenly gone into silent mode, especially when you ask how they are. While we don’t want teens to be isolated, and would rightly worry if their withdrawal were accompanied by depression, science shows that moving toward solitude is a normal part of the adolescent journey. Adolescence brings with it a developmental change—the ability to use time alone constructively. Here are four reasons why solitude holds a special place in a teenager’s life:
1. Solitude allows them to experiment with autonomy.
Teens have spent most of their lives going along with other people’s agendas; now they want some independence. This is especially true for kids growing up in Western cultures that promote individualism. It’s typical for teens in the U.S. to retreat from parents to establish their autonomy, which primarily centers around the freedom to sort through their feelings privately and do what they like with their leisure time.
Of course, teens vary in the amount of time they spend alone, and much of their withdrawal from parents gets transferred to spending time with peers, but studies show that spending a moderate amount of time alone brings about benefits that they can’t get solely from social interaction.
2. Solitude allows them to develop introspection.
Puberty doesn’t just transform bodies; it also changes teens’ brains. The move into adolescence typically improves the ability to understand other people’s points of view and to think more abstractly. These two cognitive leaps lead teens to recognize that they not only have a private self, but also a public self. This explains their rise in self-consciousness—their brains are flooding them with information about how others see them, and then comparing those evaluations with how they view themselves. Researchers call this the “divided self,” in which teens reckon with discrepancies between “a genuine interior and a false exterior” (Broughton, 1981). Psychologists see this reckoning as a developmental task—psychological homework if you will.
Teens often lament to parents, “No one understands me!” But solitude can be a place for teens to withdraw from the social world and develop the skill of introspection so that they can understand themselves more fully. Alone with their thoughts, adolescents have the chance to take a step back and self-reflect. They might replay a conversation they had yesterday with a friend and analyze who said what, and they may even reconsider whether it’s beneficial for them to stay close to this friend. All of this introspection is necessary to help them connect to their genuine interior. But this begs the question: Who are they, really?
3. Solitude creates opportunities for identity development.
All that heavy lifting from learning how to self-reflect can help teens integrate their divided self into a coherent identity. Psychologist Erik Erikson famously named identity formation as the major crisis of adolescence. According to his theory, it’s developmentally appropriate for teens to question who they are, where they are going, and what they believe in (Erikson, 1968).
Although identity continues to be shaped and reconfigured throughout the lifespan, the period of adolescence is a crucial time for teens to explore various aspects of the self—from career aspirations to sexual orientation—and then take a position on them. This results in what Erikson termed identity achievement. Research has shown that teens and young adults who spend moderate amounts of time truly alone with their own thoughts and feelings show more of this identity achievement than teens who avoid solitude, or who spend their solitary time scrolling through social media.
4. Solitude helps teens regulate their moods.
Finally, one of the major benefits of solitude for teens is that it helps them sort through complex feelings and regulate negative moods. In a landmark series of studies, psychologists found that during solitude, teens’ moods were typically low—for example, feeling unhappy or lonely—but then rebounded to normal or even higher than normal levels upon spending time with family and friends again (Larson, Csikszentmihalyi, & Graef, 1982). Importantly, these adolescents felt significantly more alert and cheerful after a period of solitude than at any other time—including after being social.
Thus, solitude seems to be a space in which teens can regulate their moods, experience what the researchers called “emotional renewal,” and emerge feeling more balanced and cheerful. Isn’t that what every parent hopes for?
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Broughton, J. (1981). The divided self in adolescence. Human Development, 24, 13-32.
Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity: Youth and crisis. New York: Norton.
Larson, R., Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Graef, R. (1982). Time alone in daily experience: Loneliness or renewal? In L. Peplau & D. Perlman (Eds.), Loneliness: A sourcebook of current theory, research and therapy (pp. 40-53). New York: John Wiley & Sons.