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Children and Loneliness

Loneliness is a primary source of “deprivation” stress. People can experience the same physical and emotional impacts from loneliness as they do from work overload or difficult life circumstances.

But can children feel loneliness? Research indicates that children as young as kindergarten not only have the capacity to “feel lonely,” but also can describe loneliness and what to do about it!

Why do children feel lonely?

The first relationship a child experiences is the one with a caretaker. Caretaker preoccupation with other concerns may result in loneliness for a very young child. Difficulties such as conflict in the home, sudden or chronic illness, or a family death may shift the parent’s attention from the child. Even positive events … starting a new job or moving to a new home … can leave a child feeling abandoned and alone.

For older children, changing schools, losing a friend, having a parent leave the home, death of a grandparent … all these can cause loneliness.

Children who experience rejection from peers for “being different” may spend time alone in and outside the classroom. Inadequate social skills development, victimization by a bully, and dealing with a peer group characterized by aggression can cause children to shy away from others. Once a pattern of isolation starts, it can be difficult to overcome.

Shy or aggressive children

Research has shown that children have inborn traits or tendencies, including those for shyness and aggressiveness. Parents usually pick up on these traits when the child gets past the developmentally normal “stranger anxiety” that is common in children at about nine months.

Research conducted at Harvard University (Kagan, Reznick, and Snidman 1988) dubbed these children as “…quiet, vigilant, and restrained in new situations…”

Shy children tend to feel stress in social situations, and may avoid peers. Although being alone may seem like a choice the child makes, this does not prevent the child from feeling lonely.

The opposite of the shy child is the aggressive child. Again, children go through a phase at about 12 to 18 months, when they may begin to hit, kick, or bite caretakers or even other children. By age two, many children learn the “basics” of aggression control.

But for some children, the aggressive behavior does not diminish. With lots of theories about why … from aggression is genetic to aggressive children tend to be hypersensitive … aggression is as much a problem in socializing with the peer group as shyness.

Difficulties Lonely Children Face

Lonely children can quickly find themselves in an endless loop. Good social skills take practice. But children who lack regular social interactions, for whatever reason, may not have adequate “practice time” to develop those skills.

Lacking social skills may result in even less social interaction, resulting in less time to learn social skills, and so on!

Feeling awkward in social situations also makes it difficult for lonely children to feel motivated. This can lead to lowered self esteem and a sense of being different from others. As lonely children become teens, they are more vulnerable to trying drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. In addition to feeling desperate to make friends, some teens find that being around other people is just easier when high or drunk.

How parents can help

Parents can help, although the approach taken may change depending on whether the child is shy, aggressive, or has experienced other barriers to social experiences.

First, you are your child’s first teacher in social skills. Your interactions with family and friends serve as a “jumping off point” for how your child learns to interact with others. If you feel lonely, take steps to interrupt this pattern. If you feel motivated to spend time with others, it’s likely your child will feel the same.

Remove as many barriers to face-to-face peer interaction as possible. If your child doesn’t have the opportunity for neighborhood friends, get involved in an activity that will let your child meet new peers. Sports and hobby clubs are two examples.

If your child seems apathetic, sad, or insists on isolating, consider seeking professional help. Children do not have immunity from depression and social anxiety. If your child tends to be aggressive, working with a therapist who specializes in child behavior may give you the tools you need to teach your child to handle anger better.

Help your child develop an interest in others and the ability to see another’s perspective. For very young children, teach the basics of sharing and taking turns. For older children, discussions about what a friend might be thinking or feeling may be enough to get a child wondering about others.

What skills does your child need to make friends?

Ten different “skills” or attributes will help your child make friends more easily. By helping your child develop these ten, you will give your child the wherewithal to become more socially competent.

Children who make friends:

1. Have a positive attitude and want to have fun
2. Use simple assertiveness skills such as smiling and greeting others as young children, and learn to use more complex assertiveness skills as they get older
3. Give up the center of attention to others
4. Take teasing in stride
5. Stay cool when frustrated
6. Make time to play with friends
7. Pay attention in peer groups and during games
8. Share and take turns
9. Show an interest in others
10. Learn to cooperate and negotiate without anger, bossiness, or withdrawal

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