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November 2, 2022
September 21, 2023

How To Deal With Loneliness in Children: Symptoms and Solutions

We often think of loneliness as affecting mostly adults, especially older adults or adults who live alone. But loneliness can affect children as well, and may strongly impact their mental health, physical health, and even their academic standing in school.

A survey from Mental Health America found that two-thirds of 11-17 year-olds experienced stress related to loneliness. Statistics from the UK Office of National Statistics (ONS) found over 11% of 10-15 year-olds were frequently lonely; almost 10% of youths aged 16-24 were “often” lonely.

If you are a parent of a child who’s showing signs of loneliness, you are not alone—it’s a common problem, but it’s also one with solutions. Here, we’ll go over how to identify loneliness, what causes it, ideas for combating loneliness, and practical tips for how to deal with loneliness in children. 

What Does Loneliness Look Like In Children?

Loneliness in children or teenagers doesn’t always look the same as loneliness in adults. What’s more, children aren’t always able to articulate their feelings of loneliness to parents or loved ones. That’s why it can be helpful to learn the signs of loneliness in children. Here’s what to know.

Loneliness in young children

Signs of loneliness in young children may include:

  • Acting extra “clingy”
  • Wanting to play with parents more than before
  • Having many imaginary friends to replace real friends
  • Crying frequently
  • Unhealthy attention-seeking behavior, such as frequently interrupting parents or behaving poorly
  • An increase in separation anxiety

 Loneliness in teens and tweens

Symptoms of loneliness in tweens and teens may look like:

  • Spending excessive time alone
  • Having few, if any, friends outside of school
  • Relying on parents for friendship and conversation
  • Showing signs of sadness or depression
  • Negative self-talk or low self-esteem
  • Having less contact with other kids they used to socialize with

It’s important to note that not all of these behaviors indicate loneliness. For example, it’s normal for young children to have imaginary friends, and it’s also normal for teens to want to spend time alone. The problems arise when these behaviors seem to be negatively affecting a child’s mental health or if the behaviors are new or unusual for your child.

What Causes Loneliness in Children?

There are many reasons why a child might experience loneliness, and the causes of loneliness can vary from one child to another. Additionally, certain factors may make a child more prone to loneliness.

Causes and risk factors for loneliness in children may include:

  • Life transitions, such as moving to a new town or starting a new school
  • Experiencing bullying in school
  • Having a disability or other difference
  • Experiencing a death in the family or divorce
  • Having challenging or strained relationships with family or close friends
  • Being disposed to low self-esteem
  • Having trouble trusting others 

How Does Loneliness Affect Children?

Loneliness in and of itself is a difficult emotion to live with. But loneliness, especially if it’s prolonged, can lead to other issues and conditions, both in the short term and throughout a person’s lifetime.

A 2023 study published in Development and Psychopathology looked at how loneliness affects kids during their teen years. Researchers found that loneliness experienced at age 12 can have impacts on academics later on, with teens who experienced loneliness at younger ages more likely to have poor grades. Moreover, researchers found that loneliness was linked to negative mental health, unhealthy lifestyle habits such as smoking, increased risk of self-harm, and excessive phone usage.

It's also well known that enduring loneliness can have impacts on a person’s mental and physical health throughout their lifetime. Loneliness is linked to elevated blood pressure, an increased risk of heart disease, mental health issues, and decreased cognitive functioning. There’s also evidence that loneliness may also deplete your immune system and increase your risk of stroke. Finally, loneliness can increase the levels of cortisol (stress hormone) in your body, can impact sleep, and can increase risks of depression, anxiety, and suicide ideation

How to Deal With Loneliness in Children

If you are watching your child live with loneliness, you likely want to do everything you can to help. You should know that you aren’t entirely powerless here.

The above referenced study from Development and Psychopathology found that loneliness could have significant negative impacts on children, but it also found that parents have an important role to play when it comes to combating loneliness in children. The study found that while factors like genetic propensity put children at increased risk for loneliness, factors like supportive parents and a loving home have an even greater modifying effect on a child’s experience of loneliness.

In other words, parents have an important and impactful role to play when it comes to overcoming loneliness in children and helping children manage their feelings of loneliness. 

Tips for Dealing with Loneliness

So how can you help your child deal with loneliness? One of the first things you can do is simply have a conversation with your child. Of course, not all children will be willing to engage in these types of conversations, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to try. You can reflect on your own experiences with loneliness, and explain that while it’s okay to feel lonely at times, when loneliness is impacting mental health and well-being, it may be time to come up with ways to manage their loneliness. 

Some children have an easier time having emotionally vulnerable conversations by text message, or during a car ride, when they don’t have to look directly at you. You know your child and can feel out how best to initiate and engage about this topic, but the idea is to let them know that you are supportive, that you care, and that they can talk to you about whatever’s going on. 

Activities to Help Reduce a Child Loneliness

Besides talking to your child about what’s going on, it can be helpful to engage your child in activities that help combat and reduce loneliness. Every child is different, and what might work for one child may not work for another, but here are some ideas to consider:

Ideas to help overcome loneliness in children

  • Brainstorm a list of interests with your child and consider activities that could engage their curiosity, particularly activities that are social.
  • Encourage your child to try a new hobby.
  • If your child has interest in sports, dance, theater, or art, encourage them to join a team or take a class.
  • See what programs local community centers or libraries have to offer; some communities have youth centers where local tweens and teens meet.
  • Plan events with extended family, including cousins and other children close in age to your child.
  • Talk to your child’s teacher about what they observe in terms of your child’s socializing; discuss opportunities for your child to socialize more with others in school.
  • Make an appointment with school counselors or school psychologists to discuss any bullying or social exclusion that may be happening in school, or whether there are social skills your child may benefit from learning more about. 
  • If your friends or co-workers have children with similar interests as your child, make time to socialize with these families. 

Where to Go For More Help

Learning how to deal with loneliness in children is not something you need to do alone. If you have tried to help your child move past their loneliness but they are still struggling, it may be time to seek out professional help with socialization. A licensed therapist can help your child deal with any social anxiety that may be contributing to their loneliness. Therapy can also help your child manage any depression or anxiety that is occurring as a result of loneliness.

You can start with your child’s pediatrician to ask for a recommendation for a local child therapist or counselor. You can also talk to your child’s teacher or school psychologist for a recommendation. Some children prefer to speak to a virtual or online therapist, especially if they are dealing with social anxiety and are afraid to travel to a therapist. 

The Bottom Line

Although it’s normal for children to go through periods where they are lonely, persistent loneliness and social withdrawal isn’t healthy for children, and it’s not something you should ignore. But there is hope. Just learning how to deal with loneliness in children means that you care, and having a supportive parent is vital for children who experience loneliness. 

If you need further support or assistance, you shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to start with a free consultation from a licensed Handspring Health therapist today, who can offer your child the tools and support to overcome and deal with their loneliness.

Works Cited

Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB. Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for CVD: implications for evidence-based patient care and scientific inquiry. Heart 2016;102:987-989.

Jefferson, R, Barreto, M, Verity, L, Qualter, P. Loneliness during the school years: how it affects learning and how schools can help. J Sch Health. 2023; 93: 428-435. DOI: 10.1111/josh.13306

Matthews T, Qualter P, Bryan BT, et al. The developmental course of loneliness in adolescence: Implications for mental health, educational attainment, and psychosocial functioning. Dev Psychopathol. 2023;35(2):537-546. doi:10.1017/S0954579421001632

Mental Health America. Is Your Child Lonely? (For Parents)

Office for National Statistics (ONS). Children’s and young people’s experiences of loneliness: 2018

Siva N. Loneliness in children and young people in the UK. Lancet Child Adolesc Health. 2020 Aug;4(8):567–8. doi: 10.1016/S2352-4642(20)30213-3. Epub 2020 Jul 22. PMCID: PMC7375781.

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