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11/19/18 blog post

why are kids so lonely?

Our lives are all about caring and genuine relationships. While we take satisfaction from our accomplishments at work or volunteer activities, it’s the people in our lives that really matter.

Helping our kids develop and maintain connections not only with parents, but with peers and other adults is essential to their mental health. When I speak with young people who have attempted suicide, a disengagement or alienation from others is a common theme.

We seem to be raising a generation of lonely kids, which is ironic at a time of constant digital interactions. A survey on loneliness recently completed in England found that 16 to 24-year-old youth had the highest rate of loneliness, with 40 percent of this group reportedly feeling lonely often or very often.

San Diego State University's Jean Twenge conducted extensive research on our kids’ digital worlds, and concluded that “social media and electronic device use is linked to higher rates of loneliness, unhappiness, depression, and suicide risk, in both correlational and experimental data.”

However, limiting our kids’ digital world won’t cure loneliness. Relationships are complicated. They require lots of different skills, like genuine caring, listening, compromise, sharing, conflict-resolution and emotional self-control. These skills don’t develop naturally with most kids.

Some experts have suggested that teaching our children the skills required in friendships is the best way to help them deal with loneliness.  Others have suggested that it’s critical to put our kids in more social situations where they have the opportunity to develop friendships based on shared interests.

There is yet another view of loneliness that was documented by Christopher Masi and his colleagues in a summary of over 50 studies completed over several decades. They concluded that lonely people have a type of thinking disorder in the way they perceive social interactions. Lonely people have a more negative mindset, expecting and therefore experiencing social interactions to be more punitive. They have a heightened sensitivity to any real or perceived rejection. When asked to reflect upon interactions, they are more likely to remember and verbalize even minor negative events and ignore pleasant and positive comments.

If loneliness is partly a problem about the way we think, how can we change that in our children?

  1. Don’t be so empathetic. When kids complain about others, reflect understanding but don’t constantly reaffirm your child’s feelings. They may whine about their teammates on a basketball team, but gently try to encourage a more nuanced understanding that people are rarely all good or bad.
  2. Stay positive. It’s easy to feel badly about others not meeting our often unrealistic expectations. Help your child appreciate what is, rather than lament what isn’t.