How to help your lonely teen
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week and, as part of their campaign, the Mental Health Foundation has released a report - All the lonely people - on loneliness.
The report highlights that one of the key risk factors for loneliness is simply ‘being between 16 and 24 years old’ - a fact that’s cropped up in other research by the ONS and BBC, which also suggested that 16-24-year-olds are significantly more likely to feel lonely than other age groups.
But, despite this, surveys for the All the lonely people report showed that the general public seems to assume the opposite. People tend to overestimate loneliness among older people and underestimate it among younger people.
If you’re a parent of a teen, you know that emotions can run high (and low), and that feelings can be short-lived. But if feelings of loneliness stick around to the point where they are severe and enduring, this can have a damaging impact on mental health.
So, what can you do to help?
TALK TO THEM
Letting your teen know that you’re there for them to talk to is one of the most important things you can do. This is not necessarily about jumping straight in with ideas to ‘fix’ the issue (although there are some more practical ideas to consider below), but simply being there to listen to them.
It might be that what you perceive as loneliness is actually them being comfortable in their own company. Not everyone is an extrovert. But if they are struggling with loneliness, simply putting the feelings into words and sharing them can be the first step towards feeling better.
If they don’t want to open up to you at first, don’t give up. Keep letting them know that you’re there to talk to, and make regular opportunities for them to talk privately with you, like going for walks or drives together. You may also like to think of another trusted adult that they might open up to - a grandparent, aunt or uncle or older sibling.
If they do talk to you, it’s important to try not to be judgmental or dismiss their feelings. Letting them know that lots of other teens feel the same way, and sharing times when you’ve felt lonely yourself, can help to let them know that they’re not alone in feeling this way, and that the feeling can pass.
EXPLORE WAYS THEY CAN CONNECT WITH OTHERS
Help them find activities, groups or hobbies that they’d like to become involved in. In particular, physical activities like exercise, sport or even gardening have been shown to have beneficial effects on mental health, and if you can find a group or club that does this, that has the added benefit of making new social connections.
If your teen isn’t into sport or physical activities, there might be other options from book clubs, to arts and crafts groups, to music and film clubs, that accommodate different interests.
Other ways of making connections could be through things like finding a part-time job, or volunteering. Volunteering also has the extra ‘feel good factor’ that comes from helping others and making a difference in something you care about, as well as providing the opportunity to make friends with people that care about the same things.
DISCUSS WHETHER SOCIAL MEDIA IS HAVING A POSITIVE EFFECT
Talk to them about their use of social media and make sure it’s having an overall positive - rather than negative - effect on their mental health and feelings of loneliness.
Social media can be a positive thing if your teen is using it to find a community of like-minded peers, and finding that it helps them have an outlet to share what’s on their mind. However, if they find that it’s leaving them with an impression that others lead a ‘perfect’ life full of friends, partners and non-stop fun, then it will only be adding pressure and making their life feel empty by comparison.
Try to help them understand that the things people share on social media are not necessarily accurate reflections of their whole lives, and that they have a choice about how they use social media and the accounts they follow, depending on how it makes them feel. Help them think about the sites they use and the accounts they follow.
There are also alternatives to traditional social media if your teen is keen to make connections online. For example, MeeToo is a peer support app that helps young people connect (albeit anonymously) and talk about shared experiences. And other mental health organisations run moderated online support forums for young people which can be a safer space to connect with others, for example The Mix.
GET A PET
This may seem like a flippant suggestion, and we fully recognise that not everyone is in a position to have a pet. But time and again, research has shown how valuable pets can be for mental health. They help reduce stress and promote the release of oxytocin in the brain, which helps people feel connected and loved.
For young people, a pet can be a positive source of structure and responsibility if they are encouraged to help look after it. On top of this, anyone who has ever walked a dog will tell you how often people will stop and chat when you’re with a dog. They may not meet a friend for life in this way, but just the process of going out, saying hello to someone and having a brief conversation can help feel more connected.
CONSIDER TALKING THERAPIES
Counselling with a professional counsellor or therapist could help explore any underlying reasons for your teen’s feelings of loneliness and help them develop coping strategies. Particularly if they are struggling to talk to you or anyone else about their feelings, talking to a trained counsellor in confidentiality could help them share their feelings in a safe, non-judgmental space.
LionHeart offers free professional counselling to the children of UK-based RICS members (aged 12 to 18). To find out more please call the LionHeart support team who will be able to talk you through the next steps and refer you.
Ring 0800 009 2960 or email email@example.com for more information.
Carmel Mullan-Hartley is Chief Executive of Open Door Counselling, recently commissioned by LionHeart to provide a free youth counselling service for the children and young people of RICS professionals aged 12 to 18. This blog was originally written for the Open Door website.