Experience of loneliness
Loneliness is a normal human emotion that everyone feels from time to time. One study shows that one in four adults feel lonely at least every few weeks. This rate is even higher for secondary and tertiary students.
Young people often experience short-term loneliness as part of their everyday lives. Many young people become particularly aware of these feelings during the holiday season or times of severe stress, such as when they get sick or have exams.
Between 2007 and 2011, Kids Helpline provided more than 2,000 counselling sessions to children and young people experiencing loneliness. In addition, during the first quarter of 2012 alone, almost 1,500 counselling sessions were provided to young clients presenting concerns about their emotional wellbeing.
This hot topic aims to help parents and carers better understand the issues around feelings of loneliness. Tips are included on how you can support your child in managing these emotions, as well as helpful links that can provide further information and assistance.
What is loneliness?
Loneliness is generally defined as a 'state of mind' where one person becomes aware of the painful feeling of disconnectedness from others. A young person experiencing loneliness may also experience 'boredom', a feeling that is generally defined as a 'lack of eagerness to do something', 'overall fatigue' or the 'unpleasant feeling as if time has slowed down and the situation became really boring'.
A person does not necessarily feel lonely when they are alone. In fact, it is necessary for people to be alone sometimes. For example, a student who has an upcoming exam may need some time alone to study or an artist needs to be on his/her own in order to complete an art piece. In contrast, a young person may feel lonely and isolated despite being surrounded by family and friends.
Loneliness is very common among young people, yet is often overlooked because of its subtle and non-disruptive nature. Unfortunately, loneliness can become a risk factor to a young person's health and wellbeing, therefore, it is important to support them through these times.
Why do young people experience loneliness?
When someone feels lonely, it means that some of their important needs are not being met. There is no single known cause of loneliness as this emotion is both complex and unique to each person. According to a study, young people are predisposed to these feelings as they are going through a lot of physical, mental and social changes that can cause stress.
Some of the known reasons why a young person may feel lonely include:
- low self-esteem
- lack of communication skills
- difficulty making friends
- conflict in interpersonal relationships (in some cases, this may arise from the experience of loneliness)
- experience of abuse or bullying
- financial difficulties
- study and/or work issues
- disability or illness
- issues with sexuality
- experience of loss (losing a loved one or something really precious, or moving elsewhere and leaving behind familiar people and places)
It is ok not to worry too much about your child's occasional feelings of loneliness. In reasonable doses, these feelings may actually develop creativity and self-reliance in a young person. However, understanding the cause of loneliness in your child's life is important so that timely support can be provided to prevent these feelings from becoming chronic and/or more serious.
What are the impacts of loneliness?
If the experience of loneliness becomes too frequent, and appropriate support is not provided, there is a risk that these feelings may eventually turn into depression and other mental health problems. Other impacts range from mild to severe symptoms, and may include:
- passive behaviour (zoning out in front of the television)
- risky and/or anti-social behaviour
- substance use
- conflict in interpersonal relationships
- suicidality and self-injurious behaviour
- poor memory and lack of problem-solving skills, and
- physical illnesses, including heart problems
General tips for parents and carers to help prevent feelings of loneliness
Depending on your child's age and ability, below are some tips to keep your child active and engaged:
- Provide your child with plenty of time to play and explore new things so that it becomes part of their process for filling in time. Let them create their own games and choose for themselves how they should be played. As they get older their games will become more sophisticated but they will tend to rely on themselves more for entertainment rather than you as the parent
- Gradually start to wean your child from depending on you all the time when you see they are ready to play alone. Try introducing age-appropriate activities that your child can do alone (e.g. completing a puzzle or building blocks for a young child or science kits for a teenager). You can start by showing them how to do something and then later on you can step back and let them do it themselves
- Try and encourage play without relying on electronic equipment such as iPods, mobile phones and personal computers. These devices are important tools we need in our everyday lives but there should be periods when no 'devices' are allowed. This may help your child realise that there are many alternative ways to fill in their time besides using technological devices
- Help your child find a hobby. Doing something they enjoy will keep them busy and may turn into a lifelong passion. Keep in mind that it is important to find a hobby that supports your child's interests and ability.
- Get involved in your child's interests
- Encourage your child to be involved with others through social and community activities;
- Do something every day to foster your child's feelings of self worth through showing interest, respect and care for his/her feelings, ideas and concerns.
Specific tips for parents or carers to support a child in overcoming loneliness
There are different ways that parents and carers can provide support to a young person experiencing loneliness, including:
- Teach your child that their emotion is a cue - if they are starting to feel lonely or bored, it's time for them to get active , and/or engaged with others. You as a parent may assist by undertaking activities with them, such as:
- family activities
- visiting the park or local beach
- window shopping
- starting a collection of things they are interested in (e.g. stamps, unusual stones, different types of leaves and/or flowers, etc.)
- gardening (harvesting your own veggies may be very rewarding!)
- taking photographs of places, plants, animals and other interesting things (they can share this online with friends and families and is a good way to catch up with friends)
- inviting friends for a sleepover (help your child plan the evening meal or the games they will like to play, etc.)
- Try to model appropriate behaviours and let your child see that you are able to engage in and enjoy activities such as gardening, painting, writing or exercising. It is important that they see there is no shortage of things to do inside and outside the house to stay active and engaged
- Talk to your child about their feelings of loneliness - that loneliness can be normal and natural at times, and may be a temporary feeling; or sometimes if the feeling hangs around too long then it can be a sign that something needs to change. Encourage your child to talk about the reasons for their loneliness. Simple solutions may help in a lot of situations
- If you suspect that there is something more serious about the situation, it may be helpful for your child to seek the support of a trained counsellor
Who can I contact for more information?
You may wish to contact your local parenting help service/s for further information.
- University of Technology Sydney (n.a.). Dealing with Loneliness. Retrieved from:http://www.ssu.uts.edu.au/counselling/self/loneliness.html on 10 May 2012.
- Scott, E. (2010). Loneliness - How To Cope With Loneliness. Simple Steps For Overcoming Loneliness. Retrieved from: http://stress.about.com/od/psychologicalconditions/a/loneliness.htm on 23 April 2012.
- Nett, E., Goetz, T. & Hall, N. (2010). 'Coping with boredom in school: An experience sampling perspective. Contemporary Educational Psychology. Retrieved from: http://www.journals.elsevier.com/contemporary-educational-psychology/ on 24 April 2012.
- Cherry, K. (n.a.). Loneliness: Causes, Effects and Treatments for Loneliness Retrieved from: http://psychology.about.com/od/psychotherapy/a/loneliness.htm on 23 April 2012.
- Margalit, M. (2010). Lonely children and adolescents: Self-perceptions, social exclusion and hope. New York: Springer.
- Yarcheski, A., Mahon, E. & Yarcheski, T. (2011). Stress, Hope, and Loneliness in Young Adolescents. Psychological Reports. DOI 10.2466/02.07.09.PRO.108.3919-22.
- Education.com (n.a.). 'The Bored Student'. Retrieved from: on 14 May 2012.
- Totally Bored (n.a.). Overcoming Boredom. Retrieved from: http://www.totallybored.co.uk/overcoming-boredom.html on 23 April 2012.
Published: 20 July 2012