What is loneliness?
You've probably read or heard the line that it's possible to feel lonely even if you are in a crowded room and surrounded by others. This is true, and it's because loneliness is caused not by being alone, but by being without a relationship or relationships that we feel we have a need for, or that we want very much.
How loneliness works for everyone
Loneliness is experienced by people of all ages when they feel disconnected or cut off from people (or a group/s), or when their social relationships are not living up to their expectations.
Humans are social beings who are born with a need to belong and this drives the way we think, how we feel, and how we communicate with others. Of course, we are all individuals and our need for connection varies, but generally, we need to feel connected and experience meaningful, positive and enjoyable interactions with others.
While everyone can have difficulty making these connections at different times, teenage years are especially known to be a time when loneliness can be felt more intensely and these feelings can sometimes be painful and overwhelming.
How loneliness can be more intense for teenagers
There are many reasons why loneliness can be more challenging during teenage years. During this time, young people go through physical, psychological and social changes, which can be both exciting and challenging.
Physical changes: Within approximately three years of becoming a teenager, young people will experience many changes in height, weight and shape. Young people who develop faster or slower can find themselves alone in their experience of change. Loneliness can start to creep into their lives as they see themselves as 'different' and perhaps unable to connect with others in the way they connected in the past.
Psychological changes: Teenagers are also developing new awareness and understanding of who they are as individuals, distinct from others. There are five significant areas of psychological change that teenagers face as they move from childhood to adulthood. Professionals call these the 'tasks of adolescence' and they are briefly detailed below.
- Independence: Developing as an independent person, separate from family and other carers.
- Indentity: Developing self-identity.
- Intimacy: Developing an understanding of your own individual sexual identity, and negotiating relationships with your peers and intimate or romantic relationships.
- Image: Developing a realistic body image and determining how to feel comfortable 'in your own skin'.
- Integrity: Working out your own beliefs and values about life by deciding who to believe and what to believe in.
Loneliness and past experiences
Personality type and early life experiences play a big role in how you see yourself as a person. Those who have had stable, warm and loving relationships with their parents or carers often have a secure sense of who they are, which helps them to be able to develop friendships and connect with others.
However, for many reasons lots of young people have not had positive experiences in their early years and this can lead to challenges in making connections, developing friendships and contributing positively in social groups.
Traumatic experiences such as loss of a loved one (particularly a parent, carer or sibling) through death or break up of relationships or any form of abuse (including being bullied as a child), can affect your trust in others and yourself and diminish your sense of self-worth, and capacity for connecting meaningfully with others.
High levels of anxiety may also lead to reduced confidence to engage in social interactions, which can reinforce feelings of loneliness and hopelessness about making friends.
Social changes and loneliness
Teenagers also experience social changes that can lead to loneliness and loss of connection. These changes may be:
- moving from primary school to high school
- moving from high school to university
- working full-time
- moving house, whether it's a change of suburbs, moving interstate or going to live in another country
The sadness that comes with the loss of moving away from old friends is a normal part of these transitions, and this feeling can be more intense if you are moving to a new school or area where you have no old friends or social connections.
Although these transitions are a normal part of life, losing old friendship groups and starting to develop new ones can be a challenging and lonely time. You can find more information on handling these changes in our Transitions Hot Topic.
What you can do if you're feeling lonely
- Change how you approach people - smiling, being friendly and relaxed when you come into contact with others can make a difference
- Have a sense of humour and try to find situations where you can have fun and enjoy yourself
- Show you're interested in others by checking in with how they are going and asking about their interests
- Get in touch with an old friend who you feel comfortable talking with
- Ask someone who may have similar interests to you to hang out - maybe invite them to come to your house to listen to music, watch a DVD, etc
- Use helpful 'self-talk' to support you through a difficult social interaction eg "I don't need everyone's approval to feel okay, I can just be myself"
- Talk to your parents or carers about joining a sporting club or other group where you will meet people who have similar interests
- Join a social network like Facebook or Twitter to help you to connect with others
Long-term loneliness and disconnection from others can have a serious impact on people's lives, and may sometimes be a factor in mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. It is important not to ignore or dismiss loneliness and seek help if you're feeling isolated from others and/or struggling to make connections that are meaningful and fulfilling.
Remember, if you need someone to talk about feeling lonely, or any other issue, you can always call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 - 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, or use our web or email counselling services.
Heinrich, L.M. & Gullone, E (2006). The clinical significance of loneliness: A literature review. Clinical Psychology Review, 26, 695-718. doi.10.1016/j.cpr.2066.04.002.
Jones, W.H. Hobbs, S.A. & Hockenbury, D. (1982). Loneliness and social skills deficits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 47. 682-689.
Schaefer, D.R., Simpkins, S.D., Vest, A.E., & Price, C.D. (2011). The contribution of extracurricular activities to adolescent friendships: New insights through social network analysis. Developmental Psychology, 47(4), 1141-1152. doi:10.1037/a0024091.
Seginer, R & Lilach, E. (2004). How adolescents construct their future: the effect ofloneliness on future orientation. Journal of Adolescence, 27, 625-643. doi: 10.1016/j.adolescence.204.05.003.
West, D.A., Kellner, R. & Moore-West, M. (1984). Comprehensive Psychiatry, 27(4). 351-363.
Published: 6 July 2012