Helping Kids Understand and Overcome Loneliness

Rare is the parent who isn’t at least a little nervous about their kids fitting in. We worry about them feeling isolated, disconnected, lonely. They don’t need to be popular; just not social outcasts.

As adults, it’s easy to empathize with lonely kids, in part because we know what loneliness feels like, and because we instinctively understand that all humans require social connection. (Yes, even introverts need social bonds, though weaker in number, they’re usually stronger in quality.)

Science also has taught us that the chronically lonely suffer from more illness and are 50% more likely to succumb to a premature death. Former U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, has gone so far as to describe loneliness as a human pathology more dangerous than heart disease or diabetes.

Now consider that we are in the midst of a loneliness epidemic whose tentacles are reaching into the ranks of the very young.

The Loneliness Epidemic

Chances are good that you or someone you know is suffering from chronic loneliness. The statistics on loneliness in adults are sobering.

  • Roughly 43 million Americans over the age of 45 are chronically lonely
  • 25% of those individuals live alone
  • More than half are unmarried (married folks experience less loneliness)
  • The loneliest group of all is young adults, ages 16-22.

That last bullet is important, because it points to a disturbing new trend: chronic loneliness in youth. While researchers are still working to determine precisely why so many kids are describing themselves as lonely, a few possible explanations have come up, kids’ growing dependence on impersonal digital devices, declining rates of marriage / cohabitation among parents, and shrinking family sizes.

In other words, today’s kids:

  • Have fewer parents and siblings at home with whom to engage
  • Are engaging in fewer familial activities
  • Are depending more heavily on digital devices to form connections, which can actually heighten their sense of social isolation and loneliness.

Sounds like a perfect storm, doesn’t it?

Helping Kids Understand Loneliness, Avoid Chronic Loneliness

While experts wrestle with the why behind the loneliness epidemic, most agree it is of paramount importance to recognize signs of chronic loneliness in kids early and take steps to address it.

In the United Kindgom, for example, schools will soon be adding ‘relationship education’ to their curriculum in an effort to curb growing levels of loneliness. The idea is both to identify kids who are struggling with loneliness, but also to teach children the cognitive processes that lead to those feelings.

Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University and one of the foremost experts on loneliness in the U.S., believes American school systems should follow suit. Opponents argue that such a program would take away from other prevention efforts against bullying, drug use, and suicide.

But Holt-Lunstad counters that loneliness often is an underlying cause to such behaviors – in other words, rather than focus on the symptoms of loneliness, we should be addressing its core causes.

Parents also must play a role, particularly because they know their children best. A first step is in recognizing signs of chronic loneliness in kids, including:

  • Lengthy periods of sadness or apathy
  • Aggressiveness and impatience (aggressive kids report the highest levels of loneliness)
  • Withdrawal from or reluctance to engage with groups
  • Timidity, anxiousness, insecurity
  • A desire to avoid school and social engagements
  • A lack of social skills, particularly in group or team settings (kids who operate on the periphery, avoid the spotlight)

How to combat loneliness in your child?

  • For starters, don’t force your child to become more social or develop friendships. Instead, first look to identify and address underlying causes.
  • Spend more time together. Family dinners, for example, have been shown to reduce rates of truancy, smoking, and drug abuse in kids – habits that can lead to or exacerbate loneliness.
  • Ensure there isn’t something else at work, perhaps a learning disorder (e.g. dyslexia, ADHD, etc.). Kids who struggle with learning disorders are more likely to feel ostracized and lonely.
  • Visit your child’s school and speak to teacher(s) – they may have insights that can help you better identify behavioral issues in your child. Is it possible, for example, that your child is being bullied?
  • Find ways to participate in activities where you can observe your child – volunteer at a school carnival or concession stand, as field trip chaperone, etc. Kids often act very different once outside the home.
  • Sign your child up for extracurricular activities of interest to her (do NOT project your interests onto her – she needs to feel a sense of control and confidence, not the pressure to meet your expectations).
  • Spend time with your child outside of normal activities – hikes in parks or woodlands can be ideal. Don’t ask direct or leading questions but instead engage in normal conversation and listen intently to what your child says and how he says it. The more he opens up, the more you can gently guide the conversation in a direction you want. Avoid rescuing your child from uncomfortable silences and lecturing/teaching. Remember, you are building confidence, ownership, and control during such activities.
  • Open up about your own bouts of loneliness and point out that they don’t last (or need to last). Remind your child that everyone experiences loneliness from time to time.
  • Explain how the way we think can create feelings of isolation. If a friend didn’t text back, for example, it doesn’t mean they don’t ‘like’ us but may have been busy, forgot, etc.
  • Remind your child of the old adage about ‘lots of fish in the sea.’ If a particular attempt at friendship isn’t working, consider other kids or groups or activities. Explain that often times a close connection is staring us in the face but we don’t see it because we’re so focused on the wrong choice.

The bottom line: loneliness is impacting tens of millions of adults, is particularly intense with older teens and young adults, and is showing signs of affecting even school-aged children. Our role, as adults and parents, is to help children overcome – or altogether avoid – chronic loneliness and the physical maladies that come with it.

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