Teenager loneliness in lockdown

An image of Harriet and Danielle
Specialist Nurse Advisers – Mental Health, Bupa
18 June 2020
Next review due June 2023

Lockdown and social restrictions due to coronavirus have created different challenges for different people. Loneliness being one of them. But this has mostly been associated with the elderly, those who live alone, or people required to shield. Loneliness can still occur in a family setting, particularly in teenagers who aren’t able to go to school, attend usual clubs or have friends round.

You may be a parent of a teenager, or perhaps an aunty, uncle or grandparent? Here, we give advice on how to help teenagers through these different times, and deal with feelings of loneliness.

What is causing loneliness?

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, loneliness in children and teenagers was common. A 2019 survey found that over 45 percent of children (aged between 10 and 15 years) said they felt lonely 'often' or 'some of the time'.

Since lockdown, many changes are adding to feelings of loneliness and isolation, such as:

  • school closures
  • not being able to meet friends
  • not being able to have friends to their house or go to others’ houses
  • not having support from teachers
  • sport clubs and team training stopped
  • cinemas, bowling alleys and similar social activities closed

Unlike smaller children, who usually play and learn under parent supervision, teenagers spend a lot of time in their bedrooms away from other family members.

This may also be the first time in their lives where restrictions have existed to stop them seeing friends, playing sport or going to school. This will be increasing their time alone and most likely, the time they spend on devices playing games and interacting on social media.

How to recognise if your teenager is lonely

It’s important to remember that there’s a difference between being lonely and being alone. Everyone is different in terms of how sociable they are and how often they like to be with others.

Some teenagers like their own company. For others, coronavirus will have had a real effect on their lives. It may be the first time they’ve ever experienced loneliness.

Although it’s not always easy to spot signs of loneliness, some things to look out for include:

  • low self-esteem and losing confidence in themselves and their abilities
  • being sad, withdrawing and pulling away from others
  • feeling depressed
  • getting angry or upset
  • drinking alcohol or smoking

Ways to support your teenager and reduce loneliness

It can be hard to connect with and understand your teenager’s feelings. But there are certain things you can do to help ease any feelings of loneliness or isolation, and support them during this time.

Support them to connect with others

Support your teenager to connect safely via phone and video calls with friends and family. They may already have their own technology to do this. Or you may have to support them by offering your own computer or phone.

Give them space to catch up with friends privately. Be more lenient on their mobile phone and social media use, but set rules and boundaries to prevent too much exposure.

As per UK government advice, you can now meet up to six people in an outside setting. Talk to your teenager about the rules around this (especially the social distancing aspect) and encourage them to see their friends. If you have a garden, perhaps ask your teenager if they would like to invite some friends over to catch up or kick a ball about.

Help them feel heard and understood

A core need of a child or teenager is to feel heard and understood. Try to be empathetic and understanding, regardless of what they say. Make a point of listening to them, instead of just trying to make it better or offering a solution.

Make them feel and know that you are focused on them when you talk. Put away your phone, stop what you’re doing and make eye contact. Create a time and place where it’s quiet and comfortable. They will be more inclined to talk about how they feel.

It may be helpful to have regular ‘family meetings’ during this time to work out how you will support one another. This allows all members of the family to be heard, not just teens.

Encourage choice and give control

With some school years not going back until September, and many leisure clubs and activities closed, teenagers are stuck at home much more. This can lead to power struggles and feelings of not having choice. This, in turn, can lead to isolation and loneliness.

Encourage your teenager to make choices and give them some control. Let them plan their day and help guide them to make choices, rather than instruct. Ask them what they’d like for dinner one night or what time they would like to eat lunch. Perhaps they could cook for the family one evening, or be in charge of ordering a takeaway?

Maintain some structure and routine

Give your teenager space and choice, and the option to meet friends outdoors. But also maintain structure, perhaps with set mealtimes or an hour when you all come together as a family.

Children and teenagers thrive on routine. Knowing what to expect will help them feel safe and secure, and as a family you will function better. Help your teenager section their day up to include:

  • school work or study
  • some exercise or fresh air
  • connecting with friends
  • time with the family
  • time alone and on devices

Having a varied day with some structure may help reduce feelings of loneliness.

Personal stories

Adam (17)

“Not being able to see friends during lockdown has been the hardest part. Especially during key times like birthdays. I sometimes feel lonely during the days when I haven’t interacted with friends over social media.

“Being able to talk to friends via video call and online chat helps. It also puts it into perspective because everyone is going through the same thing, so it’s beneficial for everyone involved.”

We asked Adam what his advice would be to other teenagers who feel lonely. He said: “Make an effort to talk to people you may not necessarily talk to usually. They’re the ones who you can find out new things about and engage in conversation.”

Evie (almost teenager, 12)

“The hardest things about lockdown is not being able to see my friends and family, and I have felt a little bit lonely in lockdown. I have missed not having support from my teachers the most.”

We asked Evie what she did when she felt lonely: “If I feel lonely, I’ll listen to music, spend time with my mum or watch a movie. Facetiming my friends and family has helped me to feel less lonely. It can help talking to someone, even if they’re not in the same room.”

An image of Harriet and Danielle
Harriet Finlayson and Danielle Panton
Specialist Nurse Advisers – Mental Health, Bupa

    • Exploring loneliness in children, Great Britain: 2018. Office of National Statistics., updated 3 April 2019
    • Tips for parents. Action for Children., accessed 16 June 2020
    • Loneliness. Mind., published July 2019
    • How loneliness can impact kids with learning and attention issues. Understood., accessed 16 June 2020
    • Guidance for parents and carers on supporting children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Public Health England., updated 16 June 2020
    • Coronavirus: Helping children and teenagers cope with change, isolation and uncertainty. BACP., published 3 April 2020
    • Supporting your teen's wellbeing during coronavirus. Mind., published 14 May 2020
    • Arlinghaus KR, Johnston, CA. The importance of creating habits and routine. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine 2018; 13(2):142–4. doi: 10.1177/1559827618818044

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