We’ve talked a lot about loneliness during the pandemic: how social distancing restrictions prevented us from seeing our loved ones, how we could no longer go to the movies, to the pub, and how it became increasingly harder to form new friendships. But these challenges don’t just affect adults. Children need socialisation as much as we do, and studies show that more and more children are struggling with loneliness.
According to recent data, 14% of children aged 10-12 said they were often feeling lonely, while in the 16-24 category, the percentage went up to 40%.
In the past year or so, pandemic-related restrictions (including online classes) have triggered an increase in the rate of loneliness among children and teenagers, but the issue itself isn’t caused by the pandemic. Researchers first identified a spike in 2012, and then persistent child loneliness became a global mental health concern in 2018. Despite living in a connected world, it seems that our children are increasingly lonely. Why does this happen, and what can parents do to help?
Every child will want to be alone every now and then, and you shouldn’t be worried if they sometimes prefer reading or playing alone instead of socialising with other children.
However, if your child is consistently alone and has a difficult time making new connections, that may be something to discuss with your teacher or family therapist. According to a growing body of evidence, the physical and mental health risks of loneliness in children are similar to those of smoking and obesity, and the consequences will trickle down into adult life.
The risks of loneliness in children include:
There are many reasons why your child might be feeling lonely, which is why it’s important to closely monitor their behaviour and encourage them to communicate.
Some of the most common causes include:
Contrary to common belief, a child who loves being alone isn’t necessarily lonely. Children can be inclined to be more or less sociable, and it’s important to encourage them to do the activities that they love. However, if your child shows some of these symptoms, they could be feeling lonely:
In older children and teenagers, loneliness can manifest as:
Again, it’s important not to draw conclusions quickly and to take the time to know your children. Many parents assume that their children are lonely just because they’d rather stay inside and read, but if they feel engaged and happy doing this, then it may be nothing to be worried about. Or it can be the other way around: parents can see their children playing with others and assume that they have friends, but, like adults, children can feel alone even if they’re surrounded by people. More often than not, the only way to know for sure if your child is feeling lonely is simply to ask.
As the parent, you know your child best. If you notice any of the symptoms above, or your family has been through a major life change that could make your child feel lonely, the first thing to do is encourage them to talk about what they’re going through.
Your child spends a lot of time in school, which is why you should also stay in touch with their teachers, to find out what activities they enjoy, how they interact with classmates, and how they can feel more included.
You should also encourage your child to explore their hobbies, try new sports, and introduce them to other children from your extended family or friend circle.
In the case of teenagers and older children, things like social media and video games may seem to help, but they have their pros and cons. For example, your child can make new friends by playing online, but video games can also be toxic and promote bullying. The same goes for social media, which can lead to negative body image and low self-esteem.
When in doubt, a certified therapist can help your child overcome loneliness and suggest activities that can bring the entire family together.