How to help children cope with loneliness
2020 has been a long and difficult year for many. We have had to adjust to a new way of living and discover new ways to connect and communicate with others. For adults and children alike, this has been a difficult process. The inability to hug our loved ones or meet up with a group of friends has been hard to get to grips with and, for younger children, a difficult change to understand.
One of the most concerning aspects of this necessary change is the fact that it is forcing many people, regardless of their age, to spend time alone. For those unaccustomed to living life in this way, it is likely that they are feeling lonely or isolated. And yet, some people may not be able to verbalise these feelings.
Loneliness is difficult to describe and children especially can struggle with this. They may understand that something is wrong, but not truly grasp how to articulate their feelings, or even if they should.
I encourage parents to open up a dialogue around what loneliness is, emphasising that feeling lonely is completely normal and a topic that is safe to talk about. By establishing this channel of communication, children are more able to explore their emotions and discuss how they might be feeling. It is important to help children understand that their feelings are natural, normal and relatable.
While this sounds straightforward, I appreciate that taking this step can be difficult. For many adults, loneliness is a stigma, which means that often, we are not open enough about it with each other.
As a consequence of this taboo, many people are not educated on what loneliness actually is, or what it feels like. Loneliness is a normal, but also very personal, feeling. Typically, when simplified, the feeling is best described as a discrepancy between desired and actual social contact. Big changes in our lives make us particularly vulnerable to loneliness, which is why now, more than ever, we should be addressing how we approach and discuss the topic.
There is, of course, no immediate ‘fix’ for loneliness, but there are some steps that I believe we can all take, to consequently help young people feel more able to open up about how they are feeling.
4 steps to feeling more comfortable talking about loneliness
- We need to learn how to recognise and acknowledge loneliness.
- We need to recognise that sometimes it is our own expectations that make us feel lonely, rather than the circumstances that we are in. This in itself is an important conversation to have. An example of this is: a Friday dinner eaten alone will feel more lonely than a Tuesday dinner, as we tend to expect more from Friday night.
- We need to break the taboo around loneliness by talking about it more. This is essential and will normalise the idea of admitting to feeling lonely.
- We need to learn that it is OK to ask for help. Sometimes our emotions need to be talked through with family or with a professional. We need to make it clear that asking for support is always the right thing to do.
I am also mindful that living an increasingly online life can be difficult for children, too. Video calls have become the norm during the pandemic, but they are not necessarily the best option for those studying from home or spending time socialising in this way.
When everyone is online in a video call, it can be an inclusive and communal experience. However, it can also have the opposite effect. When on such a call, it can be hard to know how or when to speak up or interact, making it easy to switch off or become distant, perpetuating feelings of loneliness. Just because your child is spending time ‘socialising’ in this way, doesn’t mean that they are feeling connected, fulfilled or properly included.
This is especially true for children that are staying at home from school due to the virus. When they are the only person connecting with a room full of people through a screen, it can be an incredibly isolating experience and can highlight how far apart they are from their friends, rather than making them feel part of the action.
As parents, we need to be aware of this and work together with our child and their school to ensure that they are feeling involved and engaged. By using specialist tools – such as the AV1 telepresence robot, designed to help immerse children in the classroom environment, rather than simply place them on the sidelines – they are far more likely to feel connected and, by consequence, less isolated.
If you’re worried about how your child might be coping, or concerned that a more digital life could be leaving them isolated, the first thing to do is talk with them. Create a safe space, and make clear that you are there to hear them, support them, and help them.
Now, more than ever, we should be listening to children and helping to make sure they are heard in these turbulent times. They are facing the same pandemic that we are, and they deserve all of the help and support they can get.
If you’re worried about your child and they are struggling to open up at home, or you feel like they need some extra support, it may be worth connecting with a therapist. By speaking with a counsellor, your child may be able to open up in a way they haven’t previously. Sometimes, simply speaking to a trusted stranger is easier than a friend or family member.
Simply browse profiles until you find a therapist you (or your child) resonates with, then send them an email. They will be able to answer any questions you have, explaining more about the benefits of therapy, and how this may be the option for your child.
Karen Dolva is CEO and co-founder of No Isolation, the company that is reducing loneliness and social isolation through the creation of warm technology.
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