Socially withdrawn children remove themselves from opportunities for social interaction. Most previous research has focused shy children (who withdraw due to a social fear and wariness), whereas less is known about children who may simply have a preference for solitude. Empirical studies have found that although preference for solitude appears to be a relatively benign form of social withdrawal in Western societies, children who prefer solitude or aloneness tend to report higher level of adjustment problems in China. However, most of the studies conducted in Western societies have relied on children’s self reports, whereas the findings in China have been based primarily on peer evaluations of preference for solitude. These methodological inconsistencies reduce the comparability of the results. Thus, the first aim of the present study was to examine the relations between Chinese children’s self-reports of preference for solitude and indices of psychological maladjustment.
According to the contextual-developmental perspective, cultural context plays an important role in the development of individual social and behavioral functioning. Whereas most Western societies emphasize independence and self-expression, Chinese society places greater emphasis on interdependent ties among individuals and group harmony. As a result, children who prefer aloneness and maintain distance from the group may be viewed as anti-collective, and thus would be more likely to be rejected by peers. Such negative feedback from peers may, in turn, place unsociable children at a higher risk for psychological maladjustment. In this regard, peer relationships would be expected to play an important mediating role in the relations between preference for solitude and psychological adjustment.
As compared to the middle childhood, a significant developmental change during pre-adolescence is the increased value placed on privacy and alone time. Adolescents may begin to respect unsociable individuals’ decisions to be solitary, perhaps because of the change in their own needs for privacy. Therefore, the mediating effects of peer relationships in the relations between preference for solitude and psychological adjustment may also be moderated by age.
Accordingly, in the present study a moderated mediation model was examined, in which peer preference mediated the relations between preference for solitude and psychological adjustment, and this mediation effect was moderated by age. Participants were 1026 children in middle childhood and early adolescence. Assessments of preference for solitude, loneliness, depression, self-esteem and peer preference were obtained from self-reports and peer nominations. Results indicated that: (1) in early adolescence, higher preference for solitude scores were reported than in middle childhood; (2) preference for solitude was positively associated with loneliness and depression, and negatively associated with self-esteem; (3) peer preference partially mediated relations between preference for solitude and indices of psychological adjustment, and age moderated this mediation effect. The mediation effects were found in middle childhood, but not in late childhood. Results are discussed in terms of the meaning and implications of preference for solitude in different developmental periods.