Loneliness and Fear of Intimacy among Adolescents Who Were Taught Not to Trust Strangers during Childhood

Article excerpt


This study explored feelings of loneliness and fear of intimacy among adolescents as a function of whether they were taught not to trust strangers during childhood. Eighty college students and their parents completed the Revised UCLA Loneliness Scale, both versions of the Fear of Intimacy Scale (FIS-D and FIS-F), and a background information questionnaire. It was found that students whose parents taught them not to trust strangers during childhood had greater fear of intimacy. Further, females who were taught to distrust strangers also experienced more loneliness than did their male counterparts, as well as females and males who were not taught to distrust strangers.

Over at least the past two decades, the number of children who have been abducted or molested has steadily increased (National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, 2000). In response to this trend, many parents, teachers, and other adults began to teach children not to trust strangers. However, by teaching children not to trust strangers, they may have been eroding the foundation for good future interpersonal relationships.

Several theorists, Erikson perhaps being the best known, have argued that the development of a sense of trust early in life is essential for healthy psychological functioning. According to Erikson (1963), children who fail to develop a basic sense of trust will view the world as hostile and people as undependable in later life. In contrast, trust is associated with a sense of confidence and hope. Although Erikson argued that it is important to acquire a sense of trust during the first year of life, that trust must be maintained throughout the formative years if the individual is to relate well to others in the future (Erikson, 1964). Thus, children who are taught not to trust strangers during their preschool years may have difficulty establishing intimate relationships and experience feelings of loneliness later in life.

Although limited, empirical findings seem to be consistent with Erikson's theory. Mitchell (1990) found that adolescents who do not trust others are more likely to feel insecure, lonely, and unloved. Research also indicates that the extent to which an individual trusts others is related to his or her willingness to establish intimate relations. Rotenberg (1994) reported that college students with low levels of interpersonal trust tend to be lonely, less willing to trust peers, and less likely to disclose.

Although the literature indicates that lack of trust is related to feelings of loneliness and the inability to establish satisfactory interpersonal relationships, there is a paucity of studies that specifically examine the events that may contribute to mistrust of others. One possible contributor to the development of mistrust is the type of training received during the preschool years. The purpose of the present study was to explore the relationship between the extent to which individuals were taught not to trust strangers during childhood and their feelings of loneliness and fear of intimacy in adolescence.



Eighty white students (40 males and 40 females), ranging in age from 18 to 21 years, served as subjects. All were enrolled in introductory psychology classes at a large university in the southwestern United States, and their participation was voluntary. They received extra credit after they and the person who was their primary caregiver during the first five years of life completed the required questionnaires.


Students completed both versions of the 35-item Fear of Intimacy Scale (FIS). One version of this self-report inventory asks respondents to rate the extent to which they would be willing to share intimate thoughts and feelings in a close dating relationship (FIS-D; Descutner & Thelen, 1991). The other version uses the same items but asks respondents to rate the extent to which they would be willing to share intimate thoughts and feelings with a close same-sex friend (FISF; Sherman & Thelen, 1996). …


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