My child is lonely, how can I help them?
Loneliness isn't only felt by older people - around 60% of parents worry their child is lonely too. And research suggests they might be right.
One study of preschool children found more than one in 10 say they're lonely and unhappy with their social relationships, and other research concluded one in five children aged seven to 12 also feel lonely. In addition, four out of five adolescents report similar feelings, with almost a third describing the experience as 'persistent and painful'.
The charity Action for Children has published a report on loneliness in children, young people and families, and says there are clear links between loneliness in young people and poor mental and physical health, and lower academic attainment.
Sir Tony Hawkhead, chief executive of Action for Children, says: "We know how loneliness can impact on lives - from a toddler who seldom meets people because of her mother's anxiety, to young carers with no time to make friends with people their own age. There is a role for each and every one of us in addressing loneliness in our communities."
With the help of mental health charity YoungMinds, Action for Children has come up with some tips for parents to not only spot the signs of loneliness, but to help their kids deal with it too.
Signs to look out for: Even if a child doesn't say they're lonely you may pick up signs, for example if they...
- Always come out of school alone
- Aren't invited on play dates
- Don't go out with friends or have them round
- Seem to have a cloud over their head and sigh a lot
- Say they feel sad or depressed
- Spend a lot of time by themselves or in their room - although, remember some children are content to spend a lot of time alone, while others may be part of a large social circle but still feel lonely
What to do if you think your child is lonely
1. Talk to your child. Show an interest in their friends and relationships. Talk to them about what healthy friendships are and ask them how they feel about their friendships.
2. Organise play dates at home or in a local activity centre.
3. Show by example. If you were a lonely child, or are a lonely adult, your child might be mirroring this. Make more friends of your own, for example through groups, activities and other parents, and help your child learn how to strike up conversations with new people, maybe by doing this yourself when you're out together.
4. Try not to be dismissive or discouraging when your child wants to fit in with the culture of their peers, as long as this doesn't carry any kind of risk. School culture and being able to fit in is vitally important to children, most acutely in secondary school. It might not be clear what kinds of things are 'in' or 'out' - what computer games/TV programmes/music/fashion they know and identify with are inextricably linked to acceptance and friendships. Listen to what they say and be open to what's really important to them.
5. See if there are groups or activities in your local area that your child would be interested in. Ask a teacher if you're not sure what activities your child's school offers, and go through the options with your child to see if anything appeals.
6. Remember loneliness is a feeling, not a measure of number of friends or time spent interacting socially.
7. Support your child in building their resilience, such as celebrating achievements, taking on responsibilities, understanding other people's feelings, and facing fears.
8. Speak to a teacher or other member of staff at your child's school - they may be able to help but also look out for signs once they're aware.
9. Find ways of increasing communications and confidence with all sorts of people in different ways e.g. texts to friends and relatives; chatting to neighbours; telling jokes; even learning magic tricks.
10. Encourage your child to watch out for other children who seem to be lonely e.g. in the playground, and to go and chat to them.