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Advice for Parents – Understanding and Tackling Teenage Loneliness

Back in 2018, the BBC published the results of their survey about feelings of loneliness in the UK, concluding that 4 out of 10 young people aged 16-24 perceived themselves as very lonely.

The Robert-Koch-Institute in Germany did a long-term study (between 2011 and 2017) on the overall health of children and youth including the topic loneliness as well, coming to the result that 4.2 percent of children and teenagers aged 11 – 17 often or always feel lonely.

In times when contact and communication is limited and restricted for safety reasons, these numbers probably change.

But what exactly is loneliness, what are the risk factors and how does it affect young people, especially teenagers?

Loneliness is a very common human emotion, yet experienced very individually. It is not necessarily about factually being alone. Instead, if individuals perceive themselves as alone and isolated, then that is how loneliness becomes a state of mind.

A wide range of vocabulary expresses feelings of loneliness: empty, alone, unwanted, unheard, excluded, disconnected, misunderstood, FOMO (fear of missing out), feeling distant, and many more.

A very common conception I have heard from teenagers and young people I have worked with is: “I’m with other people, yet I feel alone.” Therefore, one of the most important things is to frequently talk about, and check in on, the emotional well-being of those who are at risk or have expressed these things before.

So, what puts teenagers at risk of experiencing loneliness?

Well, looking at the recent drastic changes to our every-day lives, social distancing and not having the chance to go to school every day certainly has had a vast impact on our children.

On top of that, their parents’ generation quite certainly had never experienced isolation as a necessary evil in response to a global pandemic either – so they might struggle themselves with feeling lonely and disconnected from extended family, friends and colleagues.

Though there are other risk factors as well, that, in numerous research studies over the past decades, have been found to increase loneliness and isolation:

  • being part of a minority group (in society in general, but also within their community)
  • not being able to join in with social activities, i.e. because of chronic illness or disabilities
  • having experienced abuse of any form, which can make it harder to form relationships
  • feeling like an outsider for financial reasons (interestingly, studies in the UK have shown that this can be seen on both ends of the income spectrum in society, so either very low or very high financial status)
  • becoming homeless as a result of family breakdown
  • grief or loss (i.e. family, friend or pet)
  • being responsible for taking care of a family member with health issues – this can lead to children and teenagers feeling disconnected to peers, since such young carers often experience themselves as more mature than other children their age, in addition to having less free time

Triggering situations for teenagers can also be starting a new school, moving to a new area, starting at university/college, bullying or changes in family circumstances, such as divorce.

Sure, most of us have experienced so-called “peer pressure” as young people and are aware of this affecting the way a young person sees their social status amongst their peers (and, in times of social media, we can expect that pressure to have increased massively).

Accordingly, knowing that the feeling of “belonging” and “fitting in” plays an essential role for the social-emotional development in children and becomes even more important during their teenage years, it is undeniable that especially those children who are at risk might seek extreme and sometimes unhealthy ways to satisfy their craving for belonging.

This brings me to the next question:

What are the effects of loneliness and isolation?

As mentioned above, over the past decade, researchers have taken a closer look at the causes and effects of loneliness.

The way loneliness and isolation can affect one’s life can vary depending on the age group. Naturally, children and teens are still learning how to appropriately respond to, and cope with, certain problems in life and, therefore, might lack the coping skills to overcome loneliness on their own. This can result in various physical, mental and behavioural issues:

  • low self-esteem
  • chronic headaches
  • anxiety
  • depressive symptoms
  • lack of sleep
  • addictions, substance abuse
  • unhealthy eating habits, eating disorders

As mentioned before, teenagers might even show extreme responses to perceived loneliness and lack of “belonging”, seeking strong connections with peers or other people in unhealthy settings such as political radicalisation or being very vulnerable to online grooming.

What can parents, and we as a community, do to prevent and protect teenagers from getting lonely or isolated, and how can we intervene if that is already the case?

Intuitively, I would like firstly to bring up the importance of valuing the feelings of those around us, by which I mean to take them seriously and respect that they might differ from what we would see as an appropriate emotional response to a situation – demonstrating reassurance and compassion. I find nothing more essential in order to ensure a safe and healthy relationship that nurtures self-esteem and mindfulness.

But what else can we adults do to support teenagers who feel lonely or excluded?

Regularity, routines and easy accessibility of support are proven by various studies (i.e. Bristol University, UK) to be beneficial for children’s and young people’s social-emotional development and well-being.

Especially regular activities that involve others, such as sports clubs, book clubs, after school activities of all sorts can have a stabilising effect.

Here I am of course aware of the difficulty a “lockdown” situation brings and would suggest finding alternatives, like video chat groups, multiplayer game nights or online sports challenges. There are many ways to interact and communicate with others online. I might want to add here that cyber safety recommendations of course should be considered. While we usually would try to encourage reducing screen time and engaging with peers in our real environment, we might need to see these virtual options as a necessary evil, to prevent isolation and its devastating effects.

Overall, experts in mental health professions believe that it is not necessarily the quantity of social interaction that really makes a difference, but it is the quality. Therefore, an important message you as a parent might want to give to your child is that the number of friends is not what counts, the quality of the friendships, no matter if there is only one or three or four good friends, is what counts and has an impact on how we feel about ourselves. Especially in times like these, where social media is often misunderstood as a tool to define one’s worth through popularity, I find this very important to share. Shifting your child’s focus onto the quality of their relationships can help to prevent them from feeling unworthy or unwanted.

As stated before, the accessibility and availability of support is another important aspect when it comes to prevention and intervention regarding loneliness and isolation. Reaching an age where not everything is willingly shared with parents, your child might feel more comfortable talking to another adult (we hope not, but it happens to the best of us). This can be another family member as well as a member of the school community or external services. Mentioning these options to your child, not just when an intervention is needed but also as general information, is also a form of empowering their independence and self-management.

There are numerous inspirational quotations about how our view on life changes the way the world resonates with us; I’m sure you all have one or two popping up in your head reading this.

While I personally am not a big fan of inspirational quotes, these ones actually point at something very true and helpful to consider:

People of all ages feel most comfortable around those who even during bad times and struggles try to take something good out of it.

Practising gratitude (What am I thankful for? What was an act of kindness I witnessed today?) and healthy optimism and confidence (“Even if I’m feeling sad now, there’s going to be better times” or “I  might have failed, but I tried my best at that time and will try again” ) is something that can be role-modelled by parents on a daily basis.

After all, you as a family of course are the closest and most valuable resource to combat loneliness.

Though it may be a difficult age to deal with as parents and a bit of a challenge to excite and inspire your child to take part in family activities once they hit puberty with all its ups and downs, it’s worth continuing to try.

Regardless of age, family connections are the roots of how we build other important, sustainable relationships in life.

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