Helping Your Lonely Teen
Remember when your 5 year old was lonely and you could usually FIX IT? Maybe you called a friend to set up a playdate, or distracted him with a craft project or just went to the playground where other 5 year olds hung out.
A lonely teen is not so easy. You can’t ‘fix it’, at least not in the same hands on, take charge way you used to. Teen loneliness is more complex, teens want less of your “fixing,” and there’s a chance you could make it worse.
You can’t fix it but you can help.
First, be clear that being alone and being lonely are two different things. Don’t assume your child FEELS lonely because they are not out on a Friday night or did not go to the Homecoming Football game, or do not have as many friends as you did in high school.
If you think or know that your teen is lonely: FIRST DO NO HARM.
Don’t say JUST (just anything is a no-no: Just call Amy, Just invite a few friends over, just be friendly, just find someone to sit with, etc.)
Don’t say Should (It’s Friday night, you should be out, you should go to prom)
Don’t try to argue them out of their feelings of loneliness: “It’s not that bad.” “You do have friends.” It’s invalidating and may stop them from talking to you about their loneliness.
Don’t be terrified of their negative feelings. Laura Kastner, PH.D., author of Wise Minded Parenting reminds us that, “We do not want to get rid of negative emotions” even if they’re uncomfortable for us, here’s her 5 minute Embracing Negative Emotions video.
What can you do that might help?
Take some time to think about the situation. What exactly are you seeing, hearing, knowing? `Here are some possible “lonely teen” scenarios: What best describes the situation with your teen?
My teen has a mental health issue that is a factor in their loneliness.
My teen is chronically lonely and isolated. He seems lonely and identifies himself as lonely; it has been going on for over a year, and it is affecting him in many ways.
My teen is being purposefully excluded and isolated.
My teen is in a transition (between friend groups, schools, activities) and needs time to make new social connections.
My teen seems happy with their social life, but I think it’s not enough
My teen seems to have a reasonable social life (in my opinion), but she is not happy with it
Each of these situations might call for a different approach:
Situations #1 and #2 are often the most serious issues. Chronically lonely teens can get stuck in a loop of negative thoughts and behaviors that reinforces their loneliness and makes change difficult. If your teen has a mental health problem, such as depression and anxiety, you can’t help with the loneliness problem without addressing the mental health issue. A depressed or anxious teen can experience loneliness in a room full of friends. In these scenarios, it’s best to get support from a mental health professional. Some teens will jump at this opportunity, and are eager to go talk to someone. Others- not so much. If you can get your teen to agree to talk to a therapist, that is ideal. If not, you can go yourself, and get some guidance about how to help your teen. Not sure how to approach the idea of therapy with your teen? This is a helpful article from PsychCentral When Your Child Doesn’t Want to Go to Therapy (But Needs To) and one from parenting expert Michele Mitchell How to Talk to a Teen About Counselling: Ideas That Could Make All the Difference
In situation #3, where you think your teen is being purposefully excluded or isolated, find out as much as you can about what is happening. Ask gentle questions and mostly listen. (Note: If your teen is considered a “protected class”, that can make them more vulnerable to bullying, and also gives them more legal protections. Protected classes include race, color, religion, sex, age, disability and national origin). Behavior is legally considered bullying if it is intentional, mean, and repeated, so don’t confuse a friendship problem with bullying. In this situation, more than ever, your child needs you as a calm and loving advocate, not a crazed mama or papa bear. Here is some helpful parent advice for what to do when your teen is bullied, that includes some help in thinking about: is it bullying?, and when and how much should you intervene for your child? This article Is it Rude, Is it Mean, or is it Bullying? Includes example scenarios that could be a great conversation starter with your teen. Ultimately you have to make the decision about moving to protect your teen in a more direct way (talking to the school, legal means) but if you rush in to the rescue too quickly, you can make things worse.
In situation #5- your teen is ok with their social life and you are NOT: Pause and Evaluate:
Are you an extroverted parented and she’s an introverted kid? Here’s a great article by Susan Cain, author of Quiet, For Extroverts: 15 Ways to Be a Better Parent to Your Introverted Kid. Socializing can be exhausting: If your teen is more introverted, it may be harder for him to expend the social energy that the teen years can require- spending all day everyday in a building full of their peers may be exhausting
Are you spot on that they are in trouble but they deny it? Pressuring them to be more social won’t work, so go slowly and work on some of the suggestions below.
Are you concerned about too much time in the virtual world? Sometimes kids who feel they aren’t mastering friendships “in real life” find comfort and success in virtual fun or connection. (btw it’s all real life). If you think this is true, pay attention to what your teen is getting from their virtual world. It’s complicated, and I’m not here to convince you that time spent in the virtual world is wonderful for your teen. But consider this perspective, from research psychologist Dr. Rachel Kowert in a Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) article, Are Video Games Ruining Our Children’s Lives?:
“Rather than video games having created a generation of addicted and anti-social youths, research indicates that the highly social nature of video games, both off- and online, helps to build and maintain friendships, both with pre-existing “offline” friends and online friends. And before you dismiss online friends as being “less valuable” than face-to-face contacts, keep in mind that research shows online friends are seen close, valuable, and trusted friends, and can provide substantial social and emotional support, particularly for individuals who may be shy, socially anxious, or socially isolated.”
In situation # 6 – your teen seems to have a reasonable social life, but expresses feelings of loneliness, consider a possible mental health issue, such as depression, that might be clouding their perception? (see above re: what to do if there is a mental health issue). Persistent Depressive Disorder is a more common teen diagnosis, where mood is chronically low, but symptoms are not as severe as major depression, so it is often undiagnosed. Also, consider helping them understand why they are unhappy with their friendships. Use some gentle curiosity questioning: have they grown apart & have different interests? Is there an unresolved conflict?? Your teen may need help with how to graciously step away from a friend group, or how to speak up assertively about an issue. Girls Leadership has such great advice on this topic, and really, it applies to boys too. Here’s one of their awesome parent advice videos- How to End a Friendship: “When girls learn how to end a relationship with grace, it gives them the confidence and skills to choose the healthy relationships they want.”
Here are some general guidelines for helping in all of these lonely teen situations:
Don’t overly focus on friendships and social life. When you make it a big deal, it becomes a bigger deal to them. Try to make it less of a THING. Talk about all of the other interesting things in their life and your life. Don’t avoid talk about his less than ideal social life, but let him take the lead, and mostly listen and validate, “that’s tough when you can’t connect to the kids on your team.” “Uggh, that sounds painful to feel so left out.”
It can help in most situations, to shift the focus more to activities and interests than social life. Youth volunteer groups in the community or region? An online group connected to a cause she is passionate about? Can you help him create a pottery studio in the garage to cultivate his interest in ceramics? Nudge your teen in that direction. (notice the word nudge not push, or bulldoze.) A friendly counselor or teacher may be able to help you make a suggestion to match your teen to the right club or activity.Talk about developing interests, learning, having fun instead of social connection.
If the school social environment is just too sensitive or painful right now, then, look to the community, or even the region for groups and activities. Find places outside of school to pursue interests. Is there an art class at a local studio or museum? A rock climbing class at the local outdoor store? A radio station that uses interns? Ask your teen if she is open to suggestions. Be creative in finding things related to their interests that you can OFFER, and cast a wide net looking! If they do NOT want your help in this, see if you can enlist another relative, teacher, etc. OR find creative (aka sneaky) ways to let them know about interesting opportunities.
Encourage volunteering or part time work: Particularly for older teens, this can be an opportunity to build connections with people of all ages, pursue interests (ideally) and get out of the artificial social environment that teens sometimes stew in, where sitting with someone at lunch or being liked on social media has so much meaning. There are all kinds of possibilities, and for many teens, this is also a great confidence boost.
Find a mentor. This can work especially well for younger teens. It does not take the place of friendship but it is a positive connection, and can be a way to build social skills.
What about social media? Ask your teen how being on social media makes them feel. If it is not good (and often it is not) then talk to them about how it might help to limit time on social media. According to a recent study “perceived” social isolation increases with amount of time spent on social media. It’s not clear if this is because lonely people spend more time on social media, or social media causes the sense of loneliness? What is clear that it’s complicated, and common sense tells you that a lonely teen will feel worse if they spend a lot of time watching other teens have fun without them. Encourage your teen to notice how social media makes them feel, and step back from it as needed. 5 Signs Your Social Media Habits are Making You Miserable
Family life is not a substitute for social connections and peer relationships BUT it can be critically important for a lonely teen. If the loneliness of school extends into family life, the effects are magnified and can be devastating. Even if they resist, keep gently pulling your teen into family connection: have family dinners & family movie night, invite her on a weekend bike ride, ask him to join you to deliver food to the local food bank, etc. Make the invitations friendly and light, not desperate! It’s a tricky balance between intrusiveness and connected parenting, so walk that fine line- but try not to let them isolate from you as well as from their peers.
SAD? If your teen’s difficulty connecting to others seems like more than just their temperament—he may have social anxiety, which can be a diagnosable disorder, social anxiety disorder (SAD). The Child Mind Institute’s Guide to SAD, really covers all the bases, including how and why therapy is helpful. I also recommend the book, The Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook for Teens: CBT and ACT Skills to Help You Build Social Confidence If your socially anxious teen will read it, that’s great. If not, it can be helpful to you as well. And even if they resist it, would it hurt if you leave it out on the kitchen counter?
Is there something that might build confidence in your teen? When teens (actually all people) feel more confident, they tend to have more success connecting with others. You could even ask your teen what might help them feel more confident. At risk of sounding shallow, sometimes even a really nice new haircut or snazzy sneakers can make some difference. Do not ask them to change or be someone they are not in order to fit in, but see what might help them feel better in their own skin.
Counseling for skill building? Even if your teen does not have social anxiety disorder, or any other diagnosable mental health condition, counseling can still be helpful and worth a try if you and/or your teen are at a loss about how to make things better. A therapist can work with your teen on coping skills, problem solving, managing feelings; and offer a safe neutral ear. If love alone could fix things, it would be fixed, but sometimes something more is needed. In therapy, the problem of loneliness can become less overwhelming and more of a problem to solve.
The Dear Sugar advice podcast hosted by writers Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond episode, Letters From Teenagers Here’s how they describe the episode: “We answer two letters that get at the universal themes of adolescence — the sense of being alone, the fear of being left out, the desire to please others — and one letter from a teenager for whom outside forces have marked her teenage experience as different from her peers.’ The topic of the first letter is loneliness in high school. Check it out yourself and if you feel it would be helpful, listen to it with your lonely teen.
If you want to talk about any of this, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out about parent coaching support options.