Loneliness is a condition we more commonly associate with older people, but it seems a significant proportion of those at the other end of the age scale are affected too. Latest figures from the NSPCC have revealed that Childline held over 4,000 counselling sessions during 2016/17 with children and teenagers who were feeling lonely – the equivalent of 11 sessions every day, says Childline spokesperson Anna Krala.
“Loneliness is a subject that often comes up in clinic,” confirms clinical psychologist Dr Rachel Andrew. “Commonly, children will say they feel they don’t belong and that they’re not in tune with peers – there’s a strong sense of disconnection. And it’s not just older children reporting these feelings – children as young as three or four will say things like they don’t have any friends or that nobody likes them. It’s quite common when they start pre-school or primary school because they’re naturally introduced to wider social situations, which some find hard to navigate.”
Picking up on whether your child is lonely can be tricky, especially if they’re older and worried about embarrassing or disappointing their parents so try to cover up feelings of exclusion. “Sometimes, though, it’s the child in the middle of it all who feels loneliest,” says Dr Andrew. “It’s the classic ‘lonely in a crowd’ scenario – these children go through the motions but really it’s just all just noise, with no real feeling behind it.”
How to tell if your child is lonely – and how to help
Pre-school / primary
Anna Krala from Childline confirms that children as young as six call to talk about feeling lonely. “It can be easier to deal with younger children because they’re less likely to feel embarrassed and may display straightforward anger, frustration or sadness at feeling excluded,” she says.
“Talk to nursery or school teachers so you build up a more rounded picture and try to observe your child in their peer group,” advises Dr Rachel Andrew. “Make time to listen to what your child is telling you and validate what they’re feeling – ‘that sounds hard’, or ‘that must be upsetting for you’, for instance, if they tell you they were left out of games today. Don’t interrupt and avoid getting emotional yourself. Try to broaden out the incident to show that it might be the game or toys the other children didn’t want to play with, rather than with your child personally. Remind them of the behaviour other children warm to (kindness and empathy, for instance) and encourage them to play in that way – we know that children gravitate towards peers who display those qualities. If you can, arrange playdates with children you know your child gets on with to boost their confidence.”
Unpicking exactly what’s going on with older children and teenagers is more difficult, not least because it’s often hard to be sympathetic when faced with angry, aggressive behaviour that masks worries about not being popular. “Stay calm yourself and let your child know you’re there for them if they want to talk about what’s bothering them – don’t put it down to ‘just being a teenager’,” says Anna Krala.
“Their mood might be low and they might find it hard to eat or sleep,” adds Dr Andrew. “Be aware that teenagers might try to disguise or squash down their feelings with substance abuse. If you can, observe their behaviour when they’re around their friends or their phones – do they seem edgy, stressed or upset? Let your child know you have time for them and give them the space they need to be able to talk to you. Sometimes it’s easier for older children to open up in less direct circumstances – when you’re driving somewhere together, for instance, or when you’re engaged in doing something else like cooking dinner. Don’t underestimate how much they need you and value you, despite what they might say. Keep trying to find a way to connect. Sometimes, seeking help from outside the family can be helpful. A psychologist or counsellor can help the family see the situation in less personal or inflammatory terms.”
Is social media to blame for a generation of lonely children?
Comparing themselves unfavourably to others, whether in terms of how they look or how popular they are, is one factor leading to increased feelings of isolation in children and young people, says Anna Krala of Childline. “But really it’s a multi-factorial issue, and it would be wrong to place all the blame at the door of social media,” she adds.
Psychologist Dr Rachel Andrew agrees. “I don’t think it’s all bad, despite the potentially isolating effect it can have,” she says. “Children see other children doing exciting things with groups of friends from which they feel excluded, and of course that’s hard. But it’s important to remind them that they’re seeing edited highlights of other people’s lives and that social media can give your child a chance to connect with other children, making up their own groups and creating new friendships. Remind your child that they can shift friendship groups if they want to, and that one or two good friends can be better than a big social circle they don’t feel part of. Help them find bloggers who openly share their feelings of loneliness to help them understand they’re not alone, or encourage them to start a blog themselves. Perhaps they can use social media to create a group of likeminded people interested in the same sort of activities to help them feel less like the outsider. Remind them they have options – reframe the situation for them so they feel more in control of their life.”
Where to go for help
Childline has set up a special page for children and teenagers who feel lonely. Childline is on 0800 1111.