At the heart of our humanity is the desire to be known and understood. We crave social contact and yet so often struggle to find relationships of meaning and value. In addition to this struggle, the last year has been characterised by isolation and we have been deprived of the social interaction we so desperately need. Feelings of loneliness have been exacerbated and for many children and young people this has sadly been their reality.
What is loneliness?
Loneliness doesn’t always look like what we might imagine. When we look out for children who are lonely, we might be quick to think of those who play on their own or don’t appear to have many friends. The reality of loneliness for many children, however, is much deeper than that. Young people can feel they are alone, even if on the surface they aren’t and those who look lonely might, in fact, just enjoy their own company.
Children and young people experience loneliness when their needs for social interaction and relationships are not met. They feel it when no one else seems to understand them or when they don’t feel listened to. When young people can’t find peers with similar interests or experiences, they can struggle to find connections and this leads to feeling alone.
Loneliness can also be compounded by other factors in a child’s life. Perhaps they have experienced a recent change or transition, a bereavement or loss of relationship. It may be that there has been a family breakdown or their friendships have changed. Experiences like these can feel hugely unsettling and can be something that others find hard to understand.
The impact of loneliness
The impact of loneliness on a young person can be far-reaching. It can affect their physical health along with their ability to develop social behaviour even into adulthood. It can cause a child to be reluctant to try new things for fear of rejection or failure. Alternatively, it can increase risky behaviour, perhaps with teens who try new things as a way of fitting in or making friends. One of the crucial areas it can impact is mental health.
It is often difficult to determine whether loneliness causes poor mental health or vice versa. Either way it is important to acknowledge that mental health issues and loneliness are inextricably linked. It has been suggested that feelings of loneliness can contribute towards problems such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and stress.
As a counsellor, I speak with many children and young people with mental health struggles, who find this experience an incredibly lonely one. Children often want to know why they are different from other people, or if there is something wrong with them. They may ask why their friends can handle their problems better than they can or why they have more worries than others. These can be very lonely feelings for a child.
Identifying students who are lonely
The impact of loneliness on a young person can be far-reaching. It can affect their physical health along with their ability to develop social behaviour even into adulthood. It can cause a child to be reluctant to try new things for fear of rejection or failure. Alternatively, it can increase risky behaviour, perhaps with teens who try new things as a way of fitting in or making friends. One of the crucial areas it can impact is mental health. There are some aspects that put certain children at greater risk of facing loneliness.
Here are some factors to consider, when seeking to support those who are lonely:
Children who find social interaction difficult
Those who have fewer relationships outside of school (children like this may find the holidays especially hard)
Young people whose parents don’t interact or engage with them very much at home
Children in minority groups
A young person who has experienced discrimination or bullying
Those who have experienced a form of abuse and who may find it harder to form relationships as a result
Children in poverty who may be excluded from accessing certain services or out of school activities
Children with special educational needs or disability
Children and young people can find it difficult to express how they are feeling. It may be that the children who are irritable, whiny, aggressive, withdrawn or who seem to push other children away, are actually behaving from a place of loneliness. These children may also be those to look out for.
How to support young people experiencing loneliness
When it comes to feeling alone, some children will seek out support for themselves, but unfortunately many won’t. Here are some ways you may be able to help those struggling with loneliness:
1. Start a conversation
One aspect of loneliness is that you feel like no one else understands you. One way to help children who are feeling like this, is to open up a dialogue so that they have the opportunity to share their experiences. Ask them how they found the last year. Did they miss their friends? How have they found coming back to school? Ask them what could be done in school to make them feel less lonely?
2. Seek to show empathy
For children to feel valued and accepted, it’s important they feel listened to and understood. When speaking with them, try to imagine what life is like for them. We can’t always fix children’s problems but we can help to reassure them that their feelings are ok.
3. Take an interest in them
One of the biggest ways to care for young people, whatever they are experiencing, is to take an interest in them. As we thought about earlier, it is in our nature to want to be known and understood. So, ask them how they are and ask questions about things they are interested in. Building connections with young people helps increase their self-esteem, resilience and social skills.
4. Find ways to teach about friendship & social skills
Often children are lonely because they don’t know how to make or maintain meaningful relationships. Consider a lesson where you think about some of these issues. You could involve group activities and collaborative working to help them develop their skills further.
5. Signpost to other support within school
Schools can be busy places, where you can have a lot of responsibilities to juggle. It may be that you feel a child needs more support than you can offer. Where there are other members of staff or provisions in school, sign post this support to children who you feel may need that extra help.
By supporting young people in their feelings of loneliness, we’re seeking to both reduce the negative impact loneliness can have and equip them with the skills to make and maintain meaningful relationships into the future.