Sian at home with her dogs Sami and Frodo.
Loneliness is an experience that affects almost everyone at some point in their lives. For some young people, that experience gets better on its own as they progress through their high-school years, higher education and working life. But for others, they might need some help from their parents.
Hear from Isabella and Sian on why they felt lonely, how they overcame their loneliness and how their parents were able to help.
How loneliness impacts teens
Feeling lonely can impact young people in many different ways. They may withdraw and become isolated, or seek more attention and spend lots of time with you and the wider family. They may have a large friend group and an active social life, yet still feel isolated.
Loneliness is something that can develop over time, without much rhyme or reason, as it did for Isabella. ‘Until the age of 12 or 13, I was outgoing and had plenty of friends.’ Things began to change as she grew older. ‘I became withdrawn, irritable and reclusive at school, and it even got to the point where I would miss large chunks of class altogether. For several years, I probably only saw one friend during the entire two months of summer holidays.’
Pulling away from others is a common response to feelings of loneliness, as Sian found. ‘Until Year 10, it would be rare for me to spend more than a few hours with people my own age outside of school.’
Her feelings of loneliness didn’t just have a huge impact on her wellbeing, they also affected her family. ‘I began to have excessive mood swings, and panic attacks so severe they would keep the whole house up for most of the night.'
The feelings of isolation were hard enough to deal with, but the impact on her family was especially tough. ‘This caused significant stress for my family. I felt they were angry with me. I didn’t feel as if I could reach out and tell them what was causing these outbreaks.’
Teens’ feelings of guilt and shame can make it difficult for them to seek help from their family. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for you to have conversations with your child about this. Have a look here at some ways to encourage open communication with your teen.
Sian at a winery in Orange, NSW.
How teens independently overcome loneliness
Parents can be a great help in encouraging their teens to reconnect with others, however many teens struggle with asking for help from their parents and prefer to try and tackle their problems on their own. Like Sian, they may feel ashamed of their emotions or actions, or they might not see how loneliness is impacting them in the same way you can.
Isabella didn’t really want help from her parents, she found her feelings embarrassing and hard to talk about. Thankfully, she never felt completely helpless on her own.
‘I tend to view myself as a pretty independent person who’d rather tackle my problems in silence than ask for help in difficult situations.
‘I began seeing the school psychologist and a team of other mental health professionals to start to get my mental health back on track. After a few years, I gradually started to make and maintain friendships and I could feel the burden of isolation and angst lift off my shoulders. I began to live my life again.’
As we all know, high-school friendship groups can be toxic. By spending some time with herself, Sian was happy to escape that.
‘The idea that I had to make as many friends as possible stopped being important to me, because of my experiences with toxic friendship groups. Instead, I spent time with people I was close to and focused on doing well in sport and at school.’
But when self-care began to border on social isolation, problems arose.
‘I avoided situations that made me anxious, rather than addressing the cause of those feelings. Time alone can be really healthy and constructive. But too much time alone can make you feel bored and unmotivated, and can lead you to turn away from activities that used to make you feel happy.’
Eventually, she was able to realise the importance of balance, something every teenager needs in their life.
‘Importantly, I was able to figure out the difference between the isolation I needed in order to be kind to myself, and the loneliness that made me feel tired, unmotivated and hopeless.’
How parents can help their teens overcome loneliness
Checking in with your teen about how they're going gives them the chance to open up about their feelings and to feel less alone. Try gently bringing up the situation with your teen to try and foster a conversation about loneliness. During this chat you can share your own experiences with loneliness, and ask them what they need in order to feel less lonely.
If your teen doesn’t want to talk, there are still ways you can help them cope with loneliness. Encourage them to seek support in other ways like speaking with a professional or trying some self-help strategies.
As she grew older, Sian learnt that her feelings and behaviour were part of a broader mental health condition she was eventually able to deal with. But she only achieved that because of the support her parents provided her. ‘My parents didn’t know the details, but they could clearly see that I was struggling. They encouraged me to see the school counsellor, several psychologists and a GP.’
But that wasn’t the only way her parents were able to help.
‘They continued to lend me a hand with my school work and helped me to participate in a sport I really enjoyed (despite the frequent 4 AM starts on weekends). I learnt that it takes time for loneliness to go away. My parents couldn’t “fix” my isolation in life, but they did teach me how I could strengthen my mental health and develop meaningful connections with people around me,’ Sian says.
Isabella agrees. She says that if all else fails, just being a positive and helpful presence in your teen’s life can be more helpful than you’d think.
‘Communication is so important, but if you can’t get them to open up, don’t be hard on yourself. Being there, being a solid figure in a world that they may feel is crumbling, is the best thing you can do.’