Loneliness among children is a critical issue that leaves young children vulnerable to immediate or long-term negative consequences. It has been found to have profound negative effects on health and has been considered to be the “social equivalent of physical pain” (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010).
Research has found that children do have a valid understanding of loneliness. They define loneliness as being alone and feeling sad (Cassidy & Asher, 1992). Kindergarteners and first-grade children responded appropriately to a series of relevant questions. When asked “Where does loneliness come from?”, their answers are “Not having anybody to play with”. Subsequently, when asked “What might one do to overcome their feelings of loneliness, their answer is to “find a friend”.
What is loneliness?
Loneliness refers to a person’s mental state when they feel alone and isolated, and find it difficult to form connections with other people (Kendra, 2020). For example, when a child feels lonely, they may feel closed off from other people which results in them resigning to being quiet and not engaging socially. While loneliness is defined as a negative emotion of isolation, people might feel lonely despite being surrounded by people and peers.
Previous Malaysian Deputy Minister of Women, Family, and Community Development, Hannah Yeoh mentioned that 149 out of 264 calls to the Malaysian suicide hotline (Befrienders) were from children who are as young as 10 years old. These children revealed that they are lonely and needed someone to talk to (Sukhbir, 2019).
What contributes to loneliness?
Loneliness can be attributed to situational and internal factors. Situational factors may include physical isolation, relocation and parents’ divorce (Sbarra, 2015). The death of someone significant in a person’s life may lead to loneliness as well. On the other hand, internal factors that may lead to loneliness include having a low self-esteem and lacking confidence in oneself. Such people also often believe that they are unworthy to receive attention, affection and regard from other people (Kendra, 2020).
Situational factors may exacerbate an underlying internal issue. A child’s experience of loneliness along with abuse, neglect, and abandonment can be likened to the same isolation intensity experienced by soldiers with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (Apsche & DiMeo, 2012).
Loneliness may not be easily recognized and is commonly mislabeled as aggression, anxiety, and depression (Solomon, 2000). Loneliness has also been considered a temporary state of being and is rarely considered important enough to relieve especially during childhood. But loneliness is associated with poor health outcomes for younger ages as much as for adults (Harris, Robinson & Qualter, 2013; Qualter & others, 2013).
The family unit is where children and young people learn and develop their social skills. Hence, parental support offered to parents or caregivers can reduce the likelihood of their children or themselves from becoming chronically lonely (Margalit, 2010). Alongside this, opportunities for social interaction should be provided to children and young people, along with their families, especially for those that face significant barriers like disabled children, young parents or caregivers. (Cowan & Cowan, 2000; Mental Health Foundation, 2013).
According to the Action for Children’s survey in 2015, more than half of the parents’ surveyed said it is important to have a support network to rely on, particularly in having friends who are also parents. Here are some tips developed by Action for Children and YoungMinds (2017).
1. Parents are encouraged to talk to their children by showing genuine interests in their friends and relationships. Talk to them about what healthy friendships are and ask them how they feel about their friendships.
2. Try not to be dismissive or discouraging when your child wants to fit in with the culture of their peers, as long as this doesn’t carry any kind of risk. Remember that loneliness is a feeling, not a measure of number of friends or time spent interacting socially.
3. Support your child in building their resilience, such as celebrating achievements, taking on responsibilities, understanding other people’s feelings and facing fears.
4. Speak to a teacher or other member of staff at your child’s school – they may be able to help but also look out for signs once they are aware.
5. Find ways of increasing communications and confidence with all sorts of people in all sorts of ways. For example, texting among friends and close ones; chatting to neighbours; telling jokes; learning magic tricks.
Everyone feels lonely from time to time but if your concerns are going on for an extended amount of time, do seek help. Seek advice if you suspect there might be severe underlying concerns.