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Why Are Our Kids Feeling So Lonely?

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Very sadly, loneliness is close to the top of challenges facing todays constantly plugged in, super connected kids. Headspaces’ 2002 National Youth Mental Health Survey reveals that the majority of young people aged between 12-25 feel either left out, isolated or lacking companionship. Over 60% identify themselves as lonely.

Loneliness is a feeling that is difficult to describe and embarrassing to talk about. It is more about how connected a person feels rather than how many people they are surrounded by.  Our kids can “show up” (and put in all the effort) and still feel like they aren’t truly seen and heard. Therein lies the essence of true connection – do people dismiss me or value me?  Our kids might have friends, and a lot of them, and still feel lonely.

A 20-year-old girl I spoke to recently explained it like this, “I’ve got some friends. I go out a lot. I’m not alone but no one knows what it is like to live inside my head and inhabit my bones.” My interpretation of her words, “My relationships are not an authentic exchange. I don’t feel I can be myself.”

For young people, there is a stigma attached to loneliness, that is very real. There is also a lot of fantasy, and idealism around relationships at this age too. There may be a big difference between the connection our kids desire and the connection they experience. I would like to encourage our kids to NOT ignore or dismiss the gap, but acknowledge it as a starting point to work from.

What can we do to help?

Identify triggers. Anyone can experience loneliness, but it’s often triggered by significant life events — both positive (like a new job), negative (health problems) or transitions (in friendships ). It might be a holiday season where they know they will be left out, or a family gathering will be marked by separation. Adults are at high risk because they are managing new challenges, such as moving away from home and starting university, TAFE, work or living away from home. Being aware of these triggers and talking openly about loneliness can only help.

Poor mental health. Although feeling lonely may indicate a lack of quality relationships, it can also indicate poor mental health which impacts our perception of our relationships. Interestingly research tells us that the number of hours spent on tech doesn’t directly correlate to increased feelings of loneliness, but a lack of real-life interactions does. One could suggest one steals from the other.

School matters. Interestingly, research identifies that “where a child goes to school” matters. This is because some schools do a better job of addressing bullying, creating supportive cultures, supporting those struggling, developing programs to help kids forge stronger friendships and building environments where the physical space (both inside and outside) can help foster relationships. Assessing the culture of the all environment’s kids are in (including the friendship groups they may feel glued to) may give us a good gauge as to how lonely they are likely to be feeling. Sometimes change is necessary. Finding places to be seen, heard and accepted in safe, loving, supportive space (inside and outside of school) is the only way through loneliness…but it can take time and courage to pursue.

Talking about tech. Technology does impact so much of how our kids interact with each other. Having a different opinion, not quite measuring up, or getting someone “off-side” can lead to cruel and ongoingly public (thanks to social media) consequences. Most teens know judgement (and the associated social fall out) is only a stone’s throw away. They know that they can be put out to dry just as quickly as the next person – often with one comment or click, or the absence of that comment or click. This has to have a massive impact on the way our kids resolve conflict and show up for each other in difficult times.

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