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Is your teenager lonely? The warning sIIigns and how to support them

Curly teenage girl. Close up of curly teenage girl with dark makeup feeling bad after divorce of parents

Curly teenage girl. Close up of curly teenage girl with dark makeup feeling bad after divorce of parents© Provided by The Independent

Secondary school pupils who are lonely are less likely to be employed as adults, a study has suggested.

According to researchers from King’s College London (KCL) and the University of Greenwich, young people who felt lonely aged 12 are less likely to be in education, employment or training (NEET) by the time they reach adulthood, and believe they have a lower social status.

Bridget Bryan, the study’s lead author and a PhD student at KCL’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN), said: “While there are clear impacts of loneliness on mental health from an early age, our study demonstrates that loneliness also negatively impacts a person’s employment prospects.

“We’ve shown that, from an early age, loneliness can have knock-on effects on a person’s ability to compete in the job market. This not only harms a person’s chances in life, but also has direct costs to the economy.”

So, how can parents spot when their teenagers are struggling with loneliness, and how can they support them through it?

Why are young people experiencing loneliness?

Professor John Sharry, psychotherapist and co-founder of SilverCloud by Amwell, points out that young people may experience loneliness for various reasons – including “changes in their social environments, such as transitioning to a new school or heading to university, where they are faced with forming meaningful connections with peers.

“One study found that during the Covid-19 pandemic, young people were more likely to experience loneliness and increased levels of anxiety,” Sharry added. “Societal influences such as social media can foster comparisons and unrealistic standards. Shifts in their social circles and identity exploration can also exacerbate feelings of isolation.”

How can you tell if someone is lonely?

Loneliness can manifest differently for different people, and it’s important to remember that being lonely, and enjoying spending time alone, can be very different things.

“Some people can be surrounded by others and still experience deep and pervasive loneliness, which might induce intrusive or unwanted thoughts. Loneliness is about ‘feeling’ alone and isolated, possibly due to a lack of quality and support in relationships with parents, teachers and friends,” explained Sharry.

“Loneliness can lead to feelings of sadness, emptiness, or self-doubt, which may contribute to difficulty concentrating, negative self-talk and a distorted perception of social interactions. Over time, chronic loneliness can impair a young person’s mental health, potentially leading to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and even physical health problems.”

How can parents support their child if they are lonely?

Parents can encourage their child to join clubs and activities, said Lucy Clewley, head of middle school at St Dunstan’s College.

“Start small though – consider a club that involves quite minimal enforced interaction to begin with. The key thing is that it’s something they are interested in, so they can naturally develop relationships with others in the group with shared interests,” said Clewley.

“This is why we offer such a wide range of clubs, to ensure there is always a space students feel they belong and can express themselves freely in, gradually building connections that develop into meaningful friendships rooted in common interest.

“Some young people will find social interaction of this nature exhausting, so it is important to let them take it at their own pace. There is a difference between spending time alone and feeling lonely, so we need to respond to the individual.”

The environment and communication at home can also be also part of the picture. Creating an open and empathetic environment, where children’s feelings are validated and understood, can help.

“Our homes provide us with a sense of safety and security, so it’s important to maintain this by providing communication without judgement, so young people can express their emotions and concerns,” said Sharry.

“Encourage less screen time on social media or streaming services and facilitate opportunities to engage your children in social activities, which can help them feel less isolated.

“Utilise cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques, such as acknowledging your child’s feelings of loneliness and how this impacts their life. This can help your child challenge negative perceptions about themselves and help shift their focus and attitude toward one of self-compassion.”

Building their social confidence 

When it comes to helping build your child’s social confidence, Clewley suggests parents start at home, as a family.

“A lot of their social interactions and their closest connections can be forged at home, so maintaining these can be a great place to start,” she explained. “Celebrate the small social interactions, rather than putting too much expectation on them to very quickly start meeting friends out of school, or other big activities. Ask them who they had lunch with that day, or to share a conversation they had that day, so they can reflect on how it went and how they could build on those interactions the next day.

“Depending on the level of their confidence and social skills, consider encouraging clubs that will help them to develop them further, such as sports teams, debating, or any other team activity.

“Confidence building does not have to be linked to social interactions specifically. Anything they are succeeding in can be celebrated, however small, so they recognise their worth and feel naturally more confident to put themselves into social situations.” 

Story by Yolanthe Fawehinmi: The Independent 

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