Humans seek social contact and meaningful connection with others. When there is a discrepancy between our individual need for social contact and the actual contact we are getting, we may experience feelings of loneliness. Loneliness is often a concept only associated with adults, however people of all ages can experience loneliness and research has shown that children understand the concept of loneliness, and describe it, in similar ways to adults1. Feeling lonely can be a painful and sad emotional experience and the impact of loneliness on our wellbeing and health is increasingly being recognised.
The pandemic and associated lockdowns restricted children’s social interactions, access to social support, and participation in social activities for prolonged periods of time. During the pandemic, one in three young people in the UK reported feeling lonely2. Loneliness can also be triggered or compounded by many factors in a child’s life, for example, bereavement, parental divorce or separation, moving to a new area or school, limited social skills, or possessing personal characteristics (such as social anxiety or low self-esteem) that can impact on their ability to make friends.
The impact of loneliness
Developing social connections and building positive relationships with others is a key part of a children’s holistic development. Loneliness can therefore have significant impacts on children’s mental health and wellbeing, as well as their social and emotional development. For children and young people, loneliness may lead to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and stress. If a child is feeling lonely, they may subsequently develop poor relationships with peers, feel excluded, and experience feelings of sadness or boredom, and lack motivation. Children who are lonely are also at greater risk of being exploited, developing unhealthy relationships, and being exposed to online grooming3.
Supporting children who are lonely
Loneliness in children may not be easily detectable. Children may feel lonely despite appearing to have healthy friendships and being surrounded by their peers, while children who play alone are not necessarily lonely. Children may show signs of being anxious, timid, or may have been rejected by their peers, or have limited social skills that prevent them from initiating or maintaining friendships. Other signs might include presenting with low mood, having less energy than normal, or being irritable. Older children may also withdraw further from social activities that they might have normally enjoyed. It may not always be obvious to adults that a child is feeling lonely by simply observing them, therefore it is important to spend time with the child to explore their feelings of loneliness and sadness. Other ways to support children might include the following, both in school and at home:
- Listen and understand – Many children who experience loneliness may feel that no one listens or understands them. Ensure children’s’ voices are heard by having open conversations with them, allowing them to talk about their experiences and how they are feeling. Provide opportunities for children to express their feelings of loneliness with a key adult by using indirect and creative methods such as drawing, movement, music, or other creative methods. Adults can support children to feel valued and accepted simply by taking time to listen and by providing reassurance.
- Normalise feelings of loneliness – Validate children’s feelings and let them know it is ok to feel this way. Explore ways that might help them in school or at home to feel less lonely. As we emerge out of the pandemic, let children know that many other people have experienced loneliness during this time and that they are not alone in feeling this way.
- Reconnect through play – Play is a central part of all children and young people’s development. Encourage children to participate in outdoor physical activities and promote opportunities for socialising in small groups that involve enjoyable playful activities with children who have similar interests.
- Support to build meaningful connections – Ask children how they are feeling, get to know their interests, and connect with them. This will help them to build their self-esteem, social skills, and trusting relationships. Show genuine interest and empathy. Alongside this, support children to build on connections with their peers; explore the concept of friendship and help children learn social skills in groups or establish collaborative learning opportunities.
- Signposting and online support – There are many online support groups and organisations available for children. Give children and young people information and advice about these organisations where appropriate, or share online communities where children can ask advice and connect with others with similar interests.
- Ladd, G. W., Kochenderfer, B. J., & Coleman, C. C. (1996). Friendship quality as a predictor of young children’s early school adjustment. Child Development, 67(3), 1103-1118.
- Fox, E., Parsons, S, Todorovic, A., Songco, A. & Lim, M. (2020). Oxford ARC Study: Achieving resilience during COVID-19. Summary Report, 20th May 2020. University of Oxford.
- Supporting children and young people with loneliness. EduCare, part of TES. Available from: https://www.educare.co.uk/Media/Supporting%20children%20and%20young%20people%20with%20loneliness.pdf