It’s easy to assume that kids bounce through life almost without a hitch, but the reality is very different. Children can have problems with friends and even experience loneliness – and that can have a major impact on their mental and physical health.
The US Surgeon General recently called loneliness an “epidemic” in the country, noting that research has linked loneliness to sleep problems, bodily inflammation and even immune changes in younger adults. It has also been linked to a higher risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, addiction, suicidality and dementia.
Unfortunately, children are not immune to loneliness. Loneliness was a problem children faced before the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s gotten worse since then, says Stephen Soffer, psychologist and chief of clinical and professional affairs for the Unit of Ambulatory Behavioral Health in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Yahoo Life tells WebMD. He says there is a “significantly higher proportion” of children who say they are lonely, with 40% noting in a recent survey that they have mild to moderate feelings of loneliness, while 10% feel very alone.
What should parents do if they suspect their child is lonely? Mental health experts weigh in.
Why it is important to discuss loneliness with all children
At baseline, experts say parents should discuss with their children what loneliness is — because there’s a good chance they’ll experience it, even if they can’t name it. “Loneliness is extremely common in our world today,” says psychologist John Mayer, author of Family Fit: find your balance in life, tells Yahoo Life. “With the widespread use of electronic devices, toys, and interactive devices and objects, children … are not learning internal skills to keep themselves entertained and entertained as they did in previous generations.”
When children experience loneliness and don’t know what it is or how to ask for help, it can lead to emotional and behavioral problems, Adelle Cadieux, a child psychologist at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, tells Yahoo Life. “Periodic loneliness can be normal and may not require much intervention other than helping your child find an activity to do or connecting with friends or family,” she says. “Persistent, chronic or long-term loneliness has a much greater impact on the emotional and physical health of the child or adolescent, as well as overall day-to-day functioning.”
“Feelings of loneliness can lead to additional challenges, such as increased anxiety around peers or adults, self-esteem issues, and depression,” Hillary Ammon, a clinical psychologist with the Center for Anxiety and Women’s Emotional Wellness, tells Yahoo Life. If parents can talk to their kids about what loneliness is and feels like, they’ll have the resources to at least help identify the feeling when they experience it, she says.
Kids who feel lonely may also make poor decisions around friends or social activities, says Cadieux. “They may accept a friendship because it’s better than not having a friend, but this can lead them to bond with peers who aren’t a good influence or don’t reciprocate a good friendship,” she says. “These young people need support in identifying the negative aspects of the friendship and support in finding friendships that reciprocate.”
Signs of loneliness in children
Experts say there are a few signs a child may be lonely. Parents should take this into account:
They say they feel left out. “This may be due to changes in friendships that often occur during early and mid-adolescence — that is, a child who previously had a stable friendship group may experience unexpected and unwanted changes,” says Soffer.
They are affectionate. Children who avoid school or other activities and want to spend more time with their parents may struggle with loneliness, says Ammon. “Some children may seek more reassurance or more frequent hugs or other physical comfort,” says Cadieux.
They are bullied or bullied. “These experiences often contribute to feeling left out from peers,” says Soffer.
They seem sad. “Children who appear sad or experience significant anxiety may also feel isolated from their peers,” says Soffer.
They exhibit attention-seeking behavior. Behaving in a way to get attention — such as showing off to peers or doing things that might be unsafe — can be signs, according to Ammon.
They no longer want to do things they used to enjoy. “Parents may notice that their child shows little interest in activities or lacks confidence in participating in activities,” says Cadieux.
They are grumpy. Per Cadieux: “They may seem more bored, irritable, or more anxious than usual.”
But detecting loneliness in children can be tricky. “Some of the above behaviors may be appropriate and normal for development,” says Ammon. “That’s why it’s important to discuss behaviors — to better understand the root cause of their behavior. If you notice different signs, loneliness may be a bigger concern.”
How to help children with loneliness
The first thing to do is talk to the child, says Ammon. “You can be direct and express your concern,” she says. “If your child reports feeling lonely, ask what factors lead to feelings of loneliness.” Once a parent knows what’s behind their child’s feeling lonely, they can try to fix the problem, Ammon suggests. For example, “If your child is being bullied, contact the school,” she says.
Cadieux also recommends that parents acknowledge their child’s feelings rather than contradict them. “If your child feels like they’re not being liked, our parental instinct is to reassure them and tell them they’re really nice,” she says. While there is a time for that reassurance, the first step is to acknowledge that they don’t feel loved and how difficult that must be. This helps your child know that they are being list
ened to and that we Don’t ignore feelings.”
Mayer suggests limiting electronics, noting that it helps kids entertain themselves more and forces them into more social interactions. “Many families have in the past insisted that the kids have a quiet hour at home where they could read, play, do crafts, or make art,” he says. “Try this.”
Parents can also take steps to involve a child more in extracurricular activities where they are social, says Cadieux. That can be:
Schedule playdates or, for older children, help facilitate a get-together.
Have them join a club or sport.
Connect with their school to see if there are any “friendship groups” or support groups.
Consider personal and virtual ways your child can connect with friends and family.
Cadieux recommends being careful about engaging a child on social media. “Social media is an opportunity to connect, but it’s not for all ages and has many drawbacks,” she says. “If your child uses social media to connect with friends, monitor how that goes and discuss ways to manage cyberbullying and inappropriate content.”
When to seek professional help for a child with loneliness
Experts say it’s never a bad thing to involve kids in counseling when they’re dealing with difficult feelings, but that’s especially true if a child is showing certain signs. “Parents are encouraged to seek professional help if they suspect their child is showing signs of depression – appearing sad and/or irritable for extended periods of time, withdrawing from enjoyable activities, changes in sleep and/or appetite patterns – or significant anxiety occurring their child is unable to participate in routine social experiences, such as playdates, parties, sports, or other activities,” says Soffer.
Kids may be off work or going through rough days here and there, but Cadieux recommends seeking professional help if a child feels persistently lonely or if a parent has been concerned about their mood or behavior for a few weeks. “Some parents initially feel most comfortable talking to their child’s primary medical provider about their concerns,” she says. “This can be a good step in assessing the situation and making recommendations such as counseling.”
But if a child makes comments about self-harm or has actually tried to hurt themselves, Cadieux says parents should seek help immediately. “The crisis hotline 988 can provide support,” she says. “Get in touch immediately. You don’t have to wait when your child or adolescent has thoughts or behaviors of self-harm or suicide. Support and help is available.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-8255, or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
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