Our marvellous brains are wired for connection from birth. We love closeness, both physical and emotional. But what happens when connection doesn’t seem to be happening as naturally or as easily for our kids? Rose Stanley takes a look.
It can be really tough to hear your child tell you they are lonely. Loneliness is a big feeling. But before you jump straight to the worst-case scenario, take a breath and remember that there’s likely to be more to their story. By listening and not making assumptions, you can get a more accurate picture.
Start by saying to your child, “I am sorry to hear you’ve been feeling lonely. Do you feel that way a lot, even every day, or a little, just sometimes?” If your child is a visual learner, draw a scale of 1 to 10 on a piece of paper or whiteboard and let them place themselves on that scale (this works well for middle primary ages and upwards)
Observe the general mood of your child over the next few days, and take mental note of how often they come home from school seeming a little withdrawn or sad. Try not to question them directly every day as to whether they have felt lonely; rather, gauge from their response to a more general question, like “Tell me about your day?”
If their answer is every day, or they put themselves quite high on the scale you have drawn, then it would be good to help your child identify some strategies to use at school and in social settings to help their confidence.
For younger children, a laminated sheet of faces up on the fridge can be a helpful aid; you could have coloured magnets that they can place on the sheet to reflect how they have felt about their day.
Clarify what loneliness is
Studies show that even young children can express what loneliness is. They might say something like: “Feeling sad and you don’t have friends.” If they are able to, have your child tell you in their own words what loneliness means for them.
Loneliness may be the word a child uses but, in fact, they might feel something else. For instance, your child may be in a group of kids and all the others want to play hide-and-seek, but your child makes another suggestion the group doesn’t like, so your child is hurt and chooses to go off on their own.
After a spate of busy sociability, children can need a chance to recalibrate, and may find the adjustment to having less company uncomfortable. They could be bored, at a loose end, and not really knowing what to do with themselves, and may interpret that as feeling lonely.
Feeling different can sometimes be interpreted by a child as loneliness. A child who is advanced in their thinking skills may be viewed by other children as annoying or a showoff and, therefore, others may not want to include them in activities. An only child who is used to communicating with adults may need some help in relating to their peers. These differences can be gently unpacked as you explain to your child that there are skills we can learn to help us get along with others.
Get some perspective
If you get the feeling your child is really hurting, it’s a good idea to give their teacher a call. Ask them what their observations are of how your child relates to others. Is your child usually on their own, or with others in the playground? Do they seem to get along with the children in their class the majority of the time?
A teacher’s perspective is important, as sometimes a child can communicate feelings of loneliness when there has been an isolated event such as rejection by one particular group, or their best friend may be sick and your child is a bit lost without them, or perhaps they find it hard to break into other friendship circles. A child may really want to be one of the “popular” kids, while overlooking that they are, in fact, well-liked by a good number of their peers.
These are normal childhood experiences which you can help your child with. Reassure them to be patient, that friendships can take some time and encourage them to adapt to changing circumstances.
Consider the broader picture
As parents, we can guide our children to have a healthy balance, which really helps at those times when children are struggling a little more with social connections. Try to ensure that not all of your child’s social circle is connected through one avenue, such as school. Chatting to people at the public library, swimming pool, sports club, or the local park help create different social opportunities.
Time on our own can be good
Being alone doesn’t have to equate with being lonely. Encourage your child to develop individual hobbies and interests they can potter with at home so that they don’t feel bereft without company. There might be a bit of trial and error with this one!
Use the tools you have in your own home
Read books or watch a movie together, talking afterwards at an age-appropriate level about some desirable character traits such as flexibility, adaptability, and being able to compromise. Have a good laugh together about some of the problem areas, too.
Utilise your local library
Take out a wide range of books around the general theme of friendship – there will be a feast of options, giving plenty of food for thought. A lovely book for young children is When I’m Feeling Lonely, by Trace Moroney (check out the read-aloud version here)
Extra resources for parents
Want more info about friendships? “Making friends” is another of Rose’s articles which provides some helpful tips to encourage your child in relating to others. If you would like more information about how our brains are wired for connection, go onto brainwave.org.nz.