In the age of social media, it can be surprisingly easy to feel disconnected from our peers. But while loneliness is commonly associated with adults, it's important to remember that teens and children can feel lonely, too.
U.K. clinical psychologist Dr. Rachel Andrew can attest to this. "Loneliness is a subject that often comes up in clinic," she told Net Doctor U.K. "Children as young as three or four will say things like they don't have any friends or that nobody likes them. It's quite common when they start preschool or primary school because they're naturally introduced to wider social situations, which some find hard to navigate."
Feelings of isolation can have various effects on your health, such as cardiovascular problems, cognitive decline, and cellular aging, which is why it's important for parents to be aware of their children's emotional well-being. Sara Dimerman, a Thornhill, Ont. psychologist and parenting expert, says the best way to do this is to keep an open dialogue with your kids.
"The best way to maintain open communication between you and your child is to validate and acknowledge what you are seeing, to reflect back to your child what you are hearing and then to brainstorm solutions together," she told HuffPost Canada via email.
If you're worried your child (or teen!) is lonely, Dimerman offers three questions to ask that will encourage your child to open up about their feelings.
1. "I see some of the kids at school making plans with one another for after-school play dates. Would you like that too?"
For kids who might not understand what loneliness is or who have trouble describing how they feel, Dimerman suggests approaching the subject by talking about something you've noticed, such as in the question above.
"The reason for asking this is that your child's response will give you some indication as to how [they] might be feeling," the author and creator of Help Me Sara explains. "For example, [they] may say, 'Well, I've tried but everyone says that they're busy,' or 'No, I don't like anyone in my class' or 'Yes, can I?'"
Based on their response, you can figure out next steps. For instance, if your child suggests they're having trouble fitting in, you can ask their teacher to monitor their social interactions at school to figure out why, Dimerman advises.
However, if your child says they don't like any of their peers, that may be a sign that they're trying to protect themselves, Dimerman says, so you may need to have a deeper discussion with them about their emotions.
2. "I've noticed that you're looking a little sad lately. Are you feeling lonely?"
It seems like common sense to just ask your child outright whether or not they're lonely, but some parents worry that this will make their kids think they're socially isolated when they aren't. According to Dimerman, this is an unnecessary concern.
"My experience has shown that if a child is not feeling something (sad or lonely in this case), then [they] will not feel that way simply because you have suggested it," she explains. "However, you may see and hear more about it after you've mentioned it because you have given your child permission to speak about it."
The suggested question above "may be validating [for your child] since you are acknowledging what you are seeing — especially if this is not your child's typical emotional tone," Dimerman adds.
3. "I see that you are spending more time alone than usual. Are you choosing to be alone or would you rather be around others more?"
"If your child says that they choose [to be alone], you may still want to explore why. If they did not choose, you may want to explore solutions to change [the situation]," Dimerman advises.
However, the parenting expert notes that you should never ask "why" outright.
"Children may either not know why the situation is what it is or may not want to explain it right away," she says. "'Why' can be explored in other ways, such as suggesting that you both come up with possible reasons why the situation may be what it is and then brainstorm solutions to change it."
At the end of the day, you want to validate your child's emotions so that they feel comfortable opening up to you going forward.
"When a child feels validated and heard, [they] feel safe to open up and explore [their] emotions and the situation at hand," Dimerman explains. "If [they] feel lectured at or interrogated, [they] will shut down. This is not just true for parents and children, but for every person-to-person communication."
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