Loneliness and isolation in teenagers – a parent’s guide

Glenys Jackson
Clinical Lead for Mental Health at Bupa UK
07 April 2022
Next review due April 2025

The teenage years are full of ups and downs. There’s a lot going on for young people to deal with. 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 much it’s natural to wonder if you should be concerned. Here I look at loneliness and isolation, how it can affect young people, what signs to look for, and what you can do to help your child.

Is loneliness a big issue for children and young people?

When we think of loneliness we often link it to older people. But a 2018 survey of 55,000 people found that 4 in 10 of people aged between 16 and 24, felt lonely ‘often’ or ‘very often’.

And a recent study of over 2000 people aged 12 to 18 found that 12-year-olds, who experience loneliness, are at greater risk of leaving school with lower grades than young people who don’t feel lonely. The findings also suggest that, without the right support, loneliness can increase their risk of developing other problems, including mental health difficulties.

Children’s charity, Childline, also reported a rise in children and teenagers using their services to talk about feelings of loneliness and isolation. They did over 6,000 counselling sessions for loneliness between 2020 and 2021. Reasons for feeling this way included low mood, anxiety  and depression. Earlier reports from Childline showed that bullying and social media  were among the reasons for feeling lonely too.

Does social media make teenagers feel lonely?

Children and young people are growing up in a different world compared to the one their parents grew up in. In particular, screen-based activities play a big part in our children’s lives. This might include watching TV, gaming, or using social media to connect with friends.

It’s been estimated that screen time can take up between 2 to 8 hours a day of young people’s time. The internet has a big influence over how our children interact with others and experience the world. And while there are positives to connecting with others online, there are also worries about the impact this can have on their mental wellbeing. One of the biggest issues is young people comparing themselves to others, 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’, even if they have family and friends around them
  • comparing their abilities to others, for example not being picked for a sports team or doing badly in their exams
  • experiencing a change to their mental health or wellbeing, or managing a mental health condition
  • being bullied
  • living with a long-term health condition or disability
  • times of change such as moving schools, going from primary to secondary school, or moving from college to university

How do you know if your teenager is lonely?

Everyone is different in terms of how sociable they are and how often they like to be with others. And it’s not always easy to spot clear signs of loneliness of isolation. Some things to look for might include:

  • low self-esteem and losing confidence in themselves and their abilities
  • being sad
  • withdrawing and pulling away from others
  • getting angry or upset
  • a noticeable change in their behaviour
  • not wanting to engage with hobbies or social activities
  • drinking or smoking

  • Starting a difficult conversation with 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 start to talk with them. These tips can help you set up a safe and supportive space to talk to them.

    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 children or young people will come to you with their problems, others might not. So, if you feel that something is wrong, 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. Also consider 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 you could use something relevant happening onscreen 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 goes quiet, 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 talk about the way they feel. 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. Help them understand that 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.

    How can I help my lonely teenager?

    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 for your teenager to help them 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.
    • Think about what’s making you feel lonely and if there is something you can do that might help you feel better.
    • 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.
    • If you’re feeling lonely and isolated don’t be afraid to tell friends or family. Speak to someone you trust or call a support line.

    Sources of support

    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 March 2022
      • 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
      • Childline annual review 2018/19. NSPCC., published 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 March 2022
      • How to cope with loneliness. Mind., published July 2019
      • How loneliness can impact kids with learning and attention issues. Understood., accessed March 2022
      • Talking about difficult topics. NSPCC., accessed March 2022
      • In December 2020 Childline delivered its highest number of counselling sessions about loneliness since the current recording method began, in 2016/17. NSPCC., published 2020
      • Timothy Matthews et al. The developmental course of loneliness in adolescence: Implications for mental health, educational attainment, and psychosocial functioning. Cambridge University press. 2022 Feb 3;1-10. doi: 10.1017/S0954579421001632

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