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?
Is a lonely child something to be worried about?
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:
- Feelings of sadness, low self-esteem, and alienation
- Higher risk of anxiety and depression
- Poor physical health
- Higher likelihood of alcohol and drug abuse
- Difficulty concentrating
- Poor self-care
- Children and teens who struggle with loneliness will usually miss out on more opportunities and fail to explore their skills and hobbies, both in school and outside of it.
Causes of loneliness in children and teenagers
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:
- A recent change in their life, such as changing schools or moving home. Remember that children are much more sensitive to change, and something that may be exciting for the rest of the family, such as moving to a big city, can make a child feel lonely.
- Loss – this can be the loss of a family member or pet, but also an older sibling or a close friend moving out.
- Divorce – as the two parents separate, the child can feel increasingly unwanted or left out, which triggers loneliness and isolation.
- Bullying – studies have shown that social rejection triggers the same area of our brain as physical pain, so being bullied and left out can make your child feel lonely.
- A history of physical or emotional abuse.
- Children in the lowest income and highest-income households are at higher risk of loneliness than those in middle-income households.
- Unfulfilling relationships with the other family members: children who live in households where parents argue a lot or who aren’t close with their parents are at a higher risk of loneliness.
Symptoms of child loneliness
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:
- Shy, withdrawn behaviour
- They want to be around you more than usual, to the point of being clingy
- Excessive crying with no apparent cause
- Misbehaviour – your child may be trying to get your attention
- Creating imaginary friends
In older children and teenagers, loneliness can manifest as:
- Low self-esteem: your child may have negative feelings about themselves
- Spending more time than usual in their room
- Displaying a lack of interest in activities they used to enjoy
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.
How to help a child who is feeling lonely
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 intr