It's easy to assume kids bounce through life with next to no issues, but the reality is much different. Kids can have trouble with friends and even experience loneliness — and that can have a big impact on their mental and physical health.
The U.S. Surgeon General recently called loneliness an "epidemic" in the country, noting that research has linked loneliness to sleep issues, bodily inflammation and even immune changes in younger adults. It's also been associated with a higher risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, addiction, suicidality and dementia.
Unfortunately, kids aren't immune to loneliness. Loneliness was an issue kids faced before the COVID-19 pandemic, but it's gotten worse since, Stephen Soffer, psychologist and chief of clinical and professional affairs for the Division of Outpatient Behavioral Health in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, tells Yahoo Life. He says there is a "substantially greater proportion" of kids who say they're lonely, with 40% noting in a recent study that they have mild to moderate feelings of loneliness, while 10% feel severely alone.
So, what should parents do if they suspect their child is lonely? Mental health experts weigh in.
Why it's important to discuss loneliness with all kids
At baseline, experts say parents should have a discussion with their kids about what loneliness is — because odds are high that they'll experience it, even if they can't name it. "Loneliness is extremely common in this time in our world," psychologist John Mayer, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, tells Yahoo Life. "With the widespread use of electronic devices, toys and interactive devices and objects, children ... don’t learn internal skills to occupy themselves and entertain themselves as they did in generations past."
If children experience loneliness and don't know what it is or how to ask for help, it can lead to emotional and behavioral health issues, Adelle Cadieux, a pediatric psychologist at the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, tells Yahoo Life. "Periodic loneliness can be normal and may not require much intervention other than assisting your child in finding an activity to do or connecting with friends or family," she says. "Persistent, chronic or long duration of loneliness has a much greater impact on the child’s or adolescent’s emotional and physical health as well as overall day-to-day functioning."
"Feelings of loneliness can lead to additional challenges, such as increased anxiety around peers or adults, self-esteem issues and depression," Hillary Ammon, a clinical psychologist at the Center for Anxiety and Women's Emotional Wellness, tells Yahoo Life. If parents are able to talk to their children about what loneliness is and feels like, they'll have the tools to at least help identify the feeling when they experience it, she says.
Kids who are feeling lonely also may end up making bad decisions around friends or social activities, Cadieux says. "They may accept a friendship because it is better than not having a friend, but this could lead to them attaching to peers that aren’t a good influence or do not reciprocate good friendship," she says. "These youths will need support in identifying the negative aspects of the friendship and support in finding friendships that are reciprocal."
Signs of loneliness in kids
Experts say there are a few signs a child may be lonely. Parents should keep these in mind:
They say they feel left out. "This may be due to changes in friendships that can be common during early and mid-adolescence — that is, a child who previously had a stable friendship group may experience unexpected and unwanted changes," Soffer says.
They're being clingy. Children who avoid school or other activities and want to spend more time with their parents may be struggling with loneliness, Ammon says. "Some kids may seek out more reassurance or more frequent hugs or other physical comforts," Cadieux says.
They're being teased or bullied. "These experiences often contribute to feeling excluded from peer groups," Soffer says.
They seem sad. "Children who appear sad or experience significant anxiety may also feel isolated from their peer group," Soffer says.
They're doing attention-seeking behaviors. Acting out in ways to try to get attention — like showing off for peers or doing things that may be unsafe — can be signs, according to Ammon.
They don't want to do things they liked before. "Parents may notice that their child shows little interest in activities or may lack confidence in joining activities," Cadieux says.
They're cranky. Per Cadieux: "They may seem more bored, irritable or anxious than usual."
But detecting loneliness in kids can be tricky. "Some of the above-mentioned behaviors may be developmentally appropriate and normal," Ammon says. "That is why it is important to discuss behaviors — to better understand the root cause of their behaviors. If you're noticing several signs, loneliness may be a greater concern."
How to help kids with loneliness
The first thing to do is to talk to the child, Ammon says. "You can be direct and express your concern," she says. "If your kid reports feeling lonely, ask what factors are leading to feelings of loneliness." Once a parent knows what's behind their child feeling lonely, they can try problem-solve, Ammon suggests. For instance, "if your child is being bullied, contact the school," she says.
Cadieux also recommends that parents acknowledge their child's feelings instead of arguing against them. "If your child states feelings of not being liked our parental instinct is to reassure them and tell them they are very likable," she says. "Though there is a time for that reassurance, the first step is to acknowledge that they feel disliked and how difficult that must be. This helps your child know that they are heard and that we are not dismissing their feelings."
Mayer suggests limiting electronics, noting that it helps kids learn to entertain themselves more and forces them to have more social interactions. "Many families in the past have insisted on the kids having a quiet hour at home where they read, play by themselves, do crafts or art," he says. "Try this."
Parents can also take steps to get a child more involved in extracurricular activities where they'll be social, Cadieux says. That can include:
Schedule playdates or, for older kids, help facilitate a get-together.
Have them join a club or sport.
Connect with their school to see if there are "friendship" or support groups.
Consider in-person and virtual ways that your child can connect with friends and family.
Cadieux recommends being wary of getting a child involved on social media. "Social media is one option for connecting, but is not appropriate for all ages and has many drawbacks," she says. "If your child is using social media to connect with friends, monitor how that is going and discuss ways to manage cyberbullying and inappropriate content."
When to seek professional help for a child with loneliness
Experts say it's never a bad thing to get kids involved in counseling if they're dealing with tough feelings, but that's especially true if a child is showing certain signs. "Parents are encouraged to seek professional help if they suspect their child is demonstrating signs of depression — appearing sad and/or irritable for extended periods of time, withdrawal from enjoyable activities, changes in sleep and/or appetite patterns — or significant anxiety that prevents their child from being able to engage in routine social experiences, such as playdates, parties, sports or other activities," Soffer says.
Kids can be off or go through difficult days here and there, but Cadieux suggests seeking out professional help if a child is feeling persistently lonely or a parent has been concerned about their mood or behavior for a few weeks. "Some parents may initially feel most comfortable talking to their child’s primary medical provider about their concerns," she says. "This can be a good step in assessing the situation and providing recommendations such as counseling."
But if a child is making comments about self-harm or has actually tried to hurt themselves, Cadieux says parents need to seek help immediately. "The 988 crisis hotline can provide support," she says. "Reach out immediately. There is no need to wait when your child or adolescent is having thoughts or behaviors of self-harm or suicide. Support and help is available."
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-8255, or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
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