Loneliness and isolation in teenagers – a parent’s guide

Glenys Jackson
Clinical Lead for Mental Health at Bupa UK
30 May 2019
Next review due May 2022

The teenage years are a tricky time – full of ups and downs. There’s a lot going on for young people to navigate. Identifying what’s ‘normal’ behaviour and what isn’t can be difficult.

We all hope our teenagers develop strong friendships and feel connected to the world around them. But if your child is spending a lot of time alone or not going out very much it’s natural to wonder if this is ok, a passing phase, or if you should be concerned.

Here we look at loneliness and isolation and how it can affect young people, what signs to look for, and what you can do to help your child.

Loneliness – a big issue for children and young people

When we think of loneliness we often think about it affecting older people, but research (called The Loneliness Experiment) suggests that it’s something that affects young people much more. Over 55,000 people took part in the survey in 2018 – making it the largest survey of its kind looking into subjective experiences of loneliness. 40 percent of 16 to 24-year-olds said they felt lonely often or very often.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) and The Children’s Society collaborated on some research too, and they reported that a higher percentage of children aged 12 said they often felt lonely than older children. This might be to do with leaving primary school and moving up to secondary school. Leaving old friends behind and making new friendships in a new environment can be a tough time for young teens.

Childline has also reported a rise in children and teenagers using their services to talk about feelings of loneliness and isolation. They did nearly 5,000 counselling sessions for loneliness in 2017/18. Reasons for feeling this way included mental health issues, bullying and social media.

The impact of the online world

As such, it’s near impossible to talk about mental wellbeing in children and young people without thinking about the online world. Children and young people are growing up in a different world to us. In particular, screen-based activities play a big part in our children’s lives – whether that’s watching TV, gaming, or using social media to connect with friends. It’s been estimated that screen time can take up between two to eight hours a day for young people. The online world has a big influence over how our children interact with others and experience their world. There are lots of positives to this, but also worries about the impact this can have on children and young people’s mental wellbeing.

In a world where technology has enabled us to be more connected than ever, it just goes to show that this isn’t always the case. One of the biggest issues is young people comparing themselves to others online, which can lead to feelings of isolation.

What else causes loneliness in teenagers?

Different factors, situations and circumstances can cause loneliness and isolation, including:

  • feeling misunderstood or having a sense of not ‘fitting in’; in this sense, your child might be surrounded by people, but they don’t feel connected or understood
  • sports and academic ability – not being picked for a team for example can make young people feel left out
  • if they are experiencing a change to their mental health or wellbeing, or they are managing a mental health condition
  • being bullied
  • living with a long-term condition or disability
  • moving through the stages of being a teenager – such as moving schools or going from primary to secondary school or from college up to university

How do teenagers describe loneliness?

It can help to understand what young people think loneliness is and what it means to them. In the ONS report, young people said that being alone was not the same as being lonely. In fact, being alone could be a positive choice. It’s important to recognise that you don’t have to be socialising all the time and that having time on your own matters to young people.

Young people also felt that loneliness involved feelings of being excluded, disconnected from other people and feeling unhappy with their relationships. Importantly, children and young people said that you can feel lonely even when you’re with other people, not just when you’re on your own.

How do you know if your teenager is lonely?

It’s important to remember that everyone has different needs when it comes to being sociable. For some people, spending a lot of time alone is natural for them. To reiterate, there’s a difference between being lonely and being alone.

It might not be easy to spot clear signs of loneliness. Children and young people can be good at hiding how they feel so you might not know from the outside that anything is wrong.

Some signs that your child might be feeling lonely and isolated include:

  • low self-esteem and losing confidence in themselves and their abilities
  • being sad, withdrawing and pulling away from others
  • getting angry and acting out
  • not wanting to try or do new things like hobbies or social activities
  • taking risks such as drinking or smoking in a bid to feel accepted

Talking to your teen

If you’re worried about your teenager’s behaviour and they are finding it difficult to open up, it might be time to have a gentle conversation with them. These tips can help you set up a safe and supportive space to talk to your child.

Take the lead

As the parent it’s up to you to show your child that they can lean on you for support and that they can talk to you. While some kids will come to you with their problems, others might not, so if you feel that something is wrong, it may be up to you to give them the nudge they need to open up.

Keep your cool

It can be distressing hearing your child is struggling or unhappy, but it’s important that you try to stay calm in the face of what they tell you.

Set up a safe space

Think about a time and place where you’ll be able to have a conversation without being interrupted, and in a place that’s comfortable for your child. This could be anywhere that works for you both – on a walk or at home when no one else is home for example. Also bear in mind that the evening might not be the best time of day if you and your child are tired.

Conversation starters

How to start the conversation can be difficult. There might be an opportunity to bring it into a conversation naturally – for example, if you’re watching TV together and something relevant comes up that you could use as a starting point. You could also ask their advice about a problem a friend of yours is dealing with. Or if it feels right, you could let your child know you’d like to talk to them about something directly and take it from there.

Take a break

It’s not always easy to know how a conversation might go. If your child is defensive, unreceptive or clams up, leave it there for now but return to it again in a few days’ time. You might find that your child comes to you after they’ve had a bit of time and feel ready to talk.

How to listen

Remember that a conversation is a two-way thing. Listening to your teen is important. Give them time to answer as they might be nervous or find it hard to open up. When you ask them a question, see if you can ask one that requires more than a yes or no answer. Encourage your teen to ask you questions and share some of your own experiences that may help them know that you understand. It might help to explain that feeling lonely isn’t about how many friends you’ve got – it’s not a measure of popularity; it’s a feeling and there are ways to feel less lonely.

Show your support

There might not be a straightforward way or answer to help your child, but just making sure they know you love and care about them can help. Let them know they can trust you and that you’re always there for them. You can ask your child if there’s something you can do that will help them.

Coping and dealing with feeling lonely

If you think your teen is lonely or they’ve told you they feel this way, it might help to let them know that they aren’t alone in experiencing this. Below are some tips, some of which are suggested by those who took part in The Loneliness Experiment to help cope with and deal with loneliness.

  • Distract yourself with activities and hobbies you enjoy.
  • See if you can think of something positive in your life.
  • Say hello to people – at school, in the shop or on the bus – just a smile can help you share a moment of connection.
  • Talk to your friends and family about how you’re feeling.
  • Think about what’s making you feel lonely – you might then be able to do something about it.
  • If you feel able to, join a social club, music or drama group, or a sports team.
  • Be easy on yourself and wait for the feeling to pass.
  • Remember that what you see on social media isn’t always the truth. It might look like others are having a better time than you (especially on Instagram), but it’s just a snapshot of one moment – it’s not reality.
  • Tell someone else that you’re feeling lonely and isolated – if not friends or family, you can call a support line.

Sources of support

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Here at Bupa we understand how important your family is. So with our family health insurance you can rest assured knowing that eligible treatment and support is available to you and your loved ones when you need it.

Glenys Jackson
Glenys Jackson
Clinical Lead for Mental Health at Bupa UK

    • The BBC Loneliness Experiment. Manchester Institute of Education., accessed 23 April 2019
    • 16-24 year olds are the loneliness age group according to new BBC Radio 4 survey. BBC Media Centre. published 1 October 2018
    • Children and young people’s experiences of loneliness: 2018. Office for National Statistics., published 5 December 2018
    • Rise in Childline counselling session about loneliness. NSPCC., published 3 July 2018
    • Screen-based activities and children and young people’s mental health and psychosocial wellbeing: a systematic map of reviews. Department of Health Reviews Facility., published January 2019
    • Tips for young people. Action For Children., accessed 23 April 2019
    • How to cope with loneliness. Mind., published April 2016
    • How loneliness can impact kids with learning and attention issues. Understood., accessed 28 May 2019
    • Talking about difficult topics. NSPCC., accessed 23 April 2019

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