May 11, 2022
By Dr Kathy Weston
I was doing some Saturday shopping recently and was wondering why the cashier was taking so long with a customer ahead of me in the queue. The transaction had clearly ended, yet the lady kept continuing her rather animated conversation. When I was finally ushered forward, the woman in question simply moved to the side of the till and kept going; regaling the cashier with a story about her daughter and the work that she used to do for a local charity.
I felt irritated, but that was before I realised something; she was simply lonely. The smile and simple ‘how are you today?’ that greeted her had ignited a conversation that made her feel immediately valued, heard and welcomed. It was entirely understandable that she didn’t want those feelings, or that brief connection, to disappear.
Loneliness is something that most of us have experienced at some point in our lives and it’s the focal point for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, which started on Monday. It is a myth that the elderly experience loneliness more than young people. In fact, during the Covid lockdown, the Office for National Statistics found that young people aged between 16 and 24 were actually the most likely demographic to report feeling lonely. Despite this, the impact of lockdown was complex and, counterintuitively, we now know that some young people (one report suggests about one in three) actually thrived during lockdown, reporting less loneliness, feeling less left out and experiencing better relationships with close friends and family.
For some people, not having to hug, handshake or meet in person may be wholly welcome. As Shakespeare observed: “Society is no comfort, to one not sociable” (Cymbeline, Act 4, Scene 1). For others, when an appetite for social connection isn’t matched by a sufficient amount of quality connections in our lives, loneliness may creep in and begin to thrive. Ultimately, it is the discrepancy between what we need versus what we are actually experiencing that deserves scrutiny.
Children can feel lonely when they feel different. When you can’t see yourself in those around you, or fail to connect with anyone with the same worldview, interests or hobbies, it can feel isolating.
Whilst it is important to realise how we are all unique and what makes us ‘special’, in the grand scheme of things, our identities are also socially constructed; children’s emerging selves rely upon and develop in relation to the feedback that they receive from those around them. Exposing children to diverse people and experiences at home or school, and encouraging them to try new things, can aid their personal and social development. Children who experience a sense of belonging to their school community, after-school clubs, neighbourhoods, family circles and friendship groups feel like they ‘fit in’. Being included, welcomed and valued for who we are (as demonstrated by the lady in the shop) boosts self-esteem, self-worth and helps build resilience for what lies ahead. The roots of resilience live in relationships.
Helping our children to find communities where they feel that they belong (yes, even online communities, for teens), will always be an important part of parenting. When you meet them at the gate after a group activity that they enjoy, pause and comment. “I have noticed you seem very happy after Saturday athletics, what is it about that group that you enjoy?”, “I love picking you up from theatre group, because you always seem so happy”. ‘Leaning in’ and encouraging our children to reflect on why being with a particular group of people facilitates feelings of joy, or contentment, can usefully help them identify factors in their lives that help them to feel good more generally. It may help them to value the importance of social connection for their own wellbeing and mental health.
Recently, during a webinar, I was asked by a parent about any potential benefit of religious coping. Great question, and pretty easy to answer, as there are volumes written on the positive relationship between religious identity and active coping. Essentially, the sense of connection and rootedness that a relationship with a Higher Power creates is yet another driver towards coping, wellness and, even better, physical health. Religious beliefs can help individuals reframe trauma, provide a ready-made framework for understanding life’s difficulties and give them a sense of hope. The parent who asked that question was right in thinking that a religious identity was another string in the bow of his son’s resilience.
Another parent asked whether or not having a girlfriend was a ‘good thing’ for his 16 year old son’s mental health. Again, a reasonably easy question to answer. Essentially, we are all driven towards connection, and the warmer and more loving those connections are, the happier we are likely to be. As long as formative teen relationships are respectful, healthy and life-enhancing for both parties, how could we fail to support a young adult in such circumstances?
You might be reading this wondering if your child is lonely. Truth is, it can be hard to tell. Whilst they might play alone or enjoy a solitary activity, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are ‘lonely’. Solitude can feel rewarding, calming and pleasurable. Loneliness though, is painful.
Like with most things when it comes to parenting, when exploring this issue, it can be incredibly useful to open up the conversation more generally in family life first. You might share a time when you felt lonely. Perhaps you were away from home for the first time, or you arrived in a new place without knowing anyone and had to rely upon your social skills to drive new connections. Perhaps you have felt lonely in a relationship or following a bereavement, and can share these experiences with older teens. It differs between people, but loneliness might leave you feeling physically depleted, unable to think clearly, sad, anxious, or even very fatigued. When we open up conversations about loneliness, we can help our whole family to unpick, recognise and name these different and difficult feelings.
Using the word ‘lonely’ more regularly and surfacing discussion about it might also reduce any perceived stigma around it. We might refer to celebrity stories of isolation to illustrate how wealth, fame or other trappings of success don’t make anyone immune to loneliness. The documentary, Gaga: Five Foot Two, produced back in 2017, provides an insight into the loneliness that can accompany fame. In one scene, Lady Gaga tells her stylist: “All these people will leave, right? They will leave and then I’ll be alone. I go from everyone touching me all day and talking at me all day to total silence.” This interesting article on loneliness among individual athletes might also provide a useful springboard for conversation.
There is also room to encourage older teens to think about how they can best alleviate or reduce loneliness for those around them, either at school or in the wider community. Could your teens visit an elderly neighbour for weekly chat or give a music recital to someone living alone? Could they reach out to someone at school who they suspect is lonely? In cultivating their natural altruism and activating a sense of agency, we can help them to promote social connectedness for others, alleviate suffering, and bolster their own self-esteem in the process. Surely, a win-win?
Let’s not forget that adults can feel lonely too. If you, or someone that you know, feels lonely, there are many organisations that can help. The Red Cross offers free community workshops on loneliness, and there are numerous peer to peer support services that might be helpful, including Web of Loneliness and various befriending organisations. I’ll leave you with one final, interesting thought, straight from the research. Some studies have found a link between skipping breakfast and loneliness. The reasons for this are not yet established, though it’s suggested that eating breakfast contributes to the production of serotonin, which regulates depression and irritability. We know that breakfast is also important for young people’s cognitive functions, so getting into the habit of starting the day off with some healthy food is a simple, protective factor that might just benefit us all!
Are you a Tooled Up member?
We’ve developed some fantastic resources for children young and old which provide helpful strategies for connecting with others and being a good friend to those around us. For younger children, our Making Friends prompts provide some great icebreakers to get conversations flowing and our 10 Strategies for Making Friends can be used by people of all ages. Why not also encourage younger children to think about what it means to be a good friend with our Yay or No Way Friendship Quiz or arm them with some ideas to help them get along better with their peers?
Looking outwards, thinking about others and being kind are also great ways to promote a sense of connection and belonging to the wider community. Next time you have a spare few minutes, listen to our podcasts (or if you are short on time, simply read the notes) with Dr Jess Datu and Professor Robin Banerjee to find out more. One of the best ways to cultivate our children’s empathy is to notice (or count) acts of kindness. Why not see how many you and your children can tick off from our list? You might also be interested in some of the titles on our compilation of books to promote kindness and empathy.
If your child feels lonely, it can be helpful to remind them of all those who love and support them. Encourage them to fill in either our Who is There for Me? activity or use our Five Fingers or Support template for younger children, so they know exactly who to turn to when they feel alone. We’ve also got a comprehensive list of support groups and services should you be worried about your child’s, or your own, mental health. Finally, our recent podcast on suicide prevention and postvention with Dr Chris Bowden emphasised how important help-seeking and hope-based talk is in helping young people to manage their feelings. Listen now for some inspiring messages about boosting young people’s mental health.