It’s easy to assume that babies bounce through life with almost no problems, but the reality is very different. Children can have problems with friends and even experience loneliness and this can have a big 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, body inflammation and even immune changes in young adults. He has also been associated with a higher risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, addiction, suicide and dementia.
Unfortunately, children aren’t immune to loneliness. Loneliness was a problem children faced before the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has gotten worse since, Stephen Soffer, psychologist and chief of clinical and professional affairs for the Division of Outpatient Behavioral Health in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the and adolescent years at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, reports Yahoo Life. He says there is a “substantially higher percentage” of children who say they are lonely, with 40% noting in a recent study that they experience mild to moderate feelings of loneliness, while 10% feel severely lonely.
So, what should parents do if they suspect their child is lonely? Mental health experts speak.
Why it’s important to discuss loneliness with all children
Basically, experts say parents should discuss what loneliness is with their children because they are very likely to experience it, even if they can’t name it. “Loneliness is extremely common right now in our world,” psychologist John Meyer, author of Family Fit: find your balance in lifehe tells Yahoo Life. “With the widespread use of electronic devices, toys, and interactive devices and objects, children … are not learning internal skills for occupation and entertainment as they did in past generations.”
If children experience loneliness and don’t know what it is or how to ask for help, it can lead to emotional and behavioral health problems, Adelle Cadieux, a pediatric psychologist at Helen DeVos Childrens 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 connect with friends or family,” she says. “Persistent, chronic, or long-lasting loneliness has a much greater impact on a child’s or adolescent’s emotional and physical health, as well as overall daily 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 at the Center for Anxiety and Women’s Emotional Wellness, tells Yahoo Life. If parents are able to talk to their children about what loneliness is and feels like, they will at least have the tools to help identify the feeling when they experience it, she says.
Children who feel lonely can also end up making poor decisions about friends or social activities, Cadieux says. “They might accept a friendship because it’s better than not having a friend, but that could lead them to become attached to peers who aren’t a good influence or don’t reciprocate a good friendship,” she says. “These young people will need support to identify the negative aspects of friendship and support to find mutual friendships.”
Signs of loneliness in children
Experts say there are some signs a child may be lonely. Parents should keep these in mind:
They say they feel left out. “This could be due to changes in friendships that can be common during early to mid-teens. That is, a child who previously had a stable friendship group may experience unexpected and unwanted changes,” says Soffer.
They are sticky. Children who avoid school or other activities and want to spend more time with their parents may be struggling with loneliness, Ammon says. “Some children may seek more reassurance or more frequent hugs or other physical comforts,” says Cadieux.
They are teased or bullied. “These experiences often contribute to feelings of exclusion from peer groups,” says Soffer.
They look sad. “Kids who appear sad or experience significant anxiety may also feel isolated from their peer group,” says Soffer.
They are doing attention seeking behaviors. Acting in ways to try to get attention like showing off to peers or doing things that may be unsafe can be signs, according to Ammon.
They don’t want to do things they used to enjoy. “Parents may notice that their child shows little interest in activities or may lack confidence in joining activities,” says Cadieux.
They are irritable. For Cadieux: “They may seem more bored, irritable or anxious than usual.”
But detecting loneliness in children can be tricky. “Some of the behaviors mentioned above may be appropriate and developmentally normal,” says Ammon. “That’s why it’s important to discuss behaviors to better understand the root cause of their behaviors. If you notice several signs, loneliness may be a bigger concern.”
How to help children with loneliness
The first thing to do is talk to the baby, Ammon says. “You can be direct and express your concern,” he says. “If your child reports feeling lonely, ask what factors are leading to feelings of loneliness.” Once a parent knows what’s causing their child to feel lonely, he or she can try to fix the problem, Ammon suggests. For example, “if your child is being bullied, contact the school,” he says.
Cadieux also recommends that parents acknowledge their children’s feelings instead of arguing against them. “If your child says he’s not liked, our parenting instinct is to reassure him and tell him that he’s very nice,” she says. “While there is a time for that reassurance, the first step is acknowledging that they feel disliked and how difficult that must be. This helps your child know that he is being listened to and that we are not ignoring his feelings about him.”
Mayer suggests limiting electronics, noting that it helps kids learn to have more fun and forces them to have more social interactions. “Many families in the past have insisted that the children have a quiet hour at home where they read, play by themselves, do crafts or art,” she says. “Try this.”
Parents can also take steps to involve a child more in extracurricular activities in which they will be social, says Cadieux. This may include:
Schedule play dates or, for older children, help facilitate a reunion.
Get them into a club or sport.
Connect with their school to see if there are any “friendship” or support groups.
Consider the in-person and virtual ways your child can connect with friends and family.
Cadieux recommends being careful not to engage a child on social media. “Social media is an option to connect, but it’s not suitable for all ages and has many drawbacks,” she says. “If your child uses social media to connect with friends, monitor how he’s doing and discuss ways to handle cyberbullying and inappropriate content.”
When to seek professional help for a child with loneliness
Experts say it’s never a bad thing to involve children in counseling if they’re dealing with difficult feelings, but this is especially true if a child is showing certain signs. “Parents are encouraged to seek professional help if they suspect their child is demonstrating signs of depression by appearing sad and/or irritable for long periods of time, withdrawing from pleasurable activities, changes in sleep and/or appetite patterns, or significant anxiety that prevents their child from being able to engage in routine social experiences, such as play dates, parties, sports, or other activities,” says Soffer.
Kids may be out or having rough days here and there, but Cadieux suggests seeking professional help if a child feels consistently lonely or if a parent is concerned about their mood or behavior for a few weeks. “Some parents may initially feel more comfortable talking to their child’s primary care physician about their concerns,” she says. “This can be a good step to assess the situation and provide recommendations such as counseling.”
But if a child makes comments about self-harm or has actually tried to harm themselves, Cadieux says parents need to seek help immediately. “The 988 crisis hotline can provide support,” she says. “Reach out immediately. There is no need to wait when your child or teenager is having 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 at the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
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