Tips on how to help kids who are feeling lonely

There are many ways that loneliness can be expressed, so it can be tricky to know when children are feeling lonely unless they come right out and tell you. Children who spend a lot of time alone aren’t necessarily lonely – they may have rich but draining social interactions at school and need time alone to recharge. On the other hand, there are kids who spend a lot of time with friends and feel very alone.

Approaching kids with curiosity and listening without judgment shows them that you’re open to whatever they have to share. Attune to the feelings beneath the words, not just the verbal content. Don’t jump to offering solutions unless they’re specifically asking for them. Do reflect back to them what you’re hearing and ask if you’re hearing correctly. It might take time, but remaining curious without judgment can create a sense of safety and create an environment in which they decide to open up.

Talking about the loneliness you feel without shame or judgment is a helpful way of normalizing the emotion and reminding kids that feelings are neither good nor bad but helpful indicators of whether our needs are being met. People are social animals; our brains are wired to connect with others. Feeling lonely is alerting us that a basic need is not being met, that we are lacking experiences of meaningful social interaction.

Even though loneliness is a human emotion, experiencing it is frequently accompanied by shame. Kids might feel like there’s something wrong with them if they think nobody wants to be with them. Chat with them about what’s worked for you in the past and the fear or anxiety you’ve felt in being vulnerable and putting yourself out there. Opening up to your kids about your own struggles with loneliness helps them to see they’re not alone, even in feeling alone.

Practice reality checks and reframing with your kids. Acknowledge your current thoughts about a situation then play with other ways of looking at it. “Nobody likes me” or “they’re mad at me” might become “my friends are overscheduled and don’t have time for hanging out” or “others are also feeling disconnected and having trouble reaching out or responding.”

If they’re open to it, read through text messages with your child and help them practice coming up with other ways of reading the messages. It’s common for teens to read them with a negative tone if they’re already feeling disconnected. If they’re open to it, lead them in brainstorming how they might want to respond if they’re feeling stuck, or how they might want to reach out and invite others to hang out.

Coming up with a plan and thinking through the various ways of saying something can be a helpful way to reduce anxiety. Practicing gratitude is another way to shift focus – naming moments of connection brings awareness to what can otherwise be easy to overlook.

It can feel daunting to know how to support your child when they’re lonely, especially if you’re not sure how to care for yourself when you’re feeling similarly. Being present, listening with curiosity and without judgment are foundational to creating space for your child to lean on you for support.

John Carleton is a therapist with Bainbridge Youth Services.