Kids can get lonely. Here’s why that’s more concerning during the pandemic.

Plus, tools to help children feel less isolated as lockdown continues.

Published 14 Jan 2021, 09:55 GMT
Photograph by Westend61 / Getty Images

Sze Quak awoke one morning to hear her seven-year-old daughter, Alice, singing alone in her bedroom. “She made up a song about wanting the coronavirus to be gone soon and wanting to go back to school,” Quak says. An only child, Alice has been confined in their Fullerton, California, home attending virtual classes since March. “Before COVID-19, she didn’t really want to go to school. Now, she’s begging to go back.”

Quak keeps Alice occupied with activities such as drawing, crafting, and biking, and also organised weekly Zoom meetups so her daughter can catch up with her friends. “When the loneliness got unbearable, we met up with a friend of hers at a park,” she says. “We keep safe by keeping our masks on.”

Around the world, what kids can and can't do during the coronavirus pandemic varies. In the U.K., current stay-at-home orders are even more restrictive, and while quarantines are necessary to prevent a deadly pandemic from spreading, forced isolation might have a negative impact on some children’s mental health. In a June 2020 study published in the Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, researchers found that children and adolescents are more likely to experience high rates of depression and anxiety during and after enforced isolation ends.

“Isolation is a huge component in mental health issues,” therapist Sarit Fassazadeh says. “We are social beings by nature. We depend on one another to interact in this world. When we’re deprived of that connection, we might experience significant physical health and mental health effects.”

As the pandemic persists, kids might be feeling even more cut off from friends and family. Here are some tell-tale signs of loneliness in children and what parents can do to help their kids feel less secluded.

The connection between loneliness and depression

Children experiencing loneliness is not a new phenomenon. A 2019 survey by the Office for National Statistics in the United Kingdom found that one in 10 kids ages 10 to 15 reported feeling prolonged periods of loneliness. Recent school closures, social distancing requirements, and harsh winter weather have further decreased children’s ability to socialise.

“If you feel lonely, you might be driven to go out and find some social contact,” said Sam Goldstein, a developmental neuropsychologist and co-author of Lonely, Sad and Angry: How to Help Your Unhappy Child. “The problem arises when people feel lonely, but they don’t see there’s anything they can do about it. They feel helpless or hopeless.”

Anxiety brought on by the pandemic could lead to prolonged loneliness, which in turn could lead to depression down the road, according to Goldstein. Loneliness in early developmental years could also affect how sociable a person will be in adulthood. In a 2020 Nature Neuroscience study, scientists found that social isolation in childhood has a harmful impact on cells in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that regulates social behaviour in adulthood.

Spotting the signs of loneliness

Fassazadeh says that kids often don’t have the vocabulary to verbalise their feelings. Adds James J. Crist, clinical psychologist and author of What To Do When You’re Cranky and Blue: “Kids have a harder time talking about their feelings. They probably won’t come out and tell you they’re lonely. They often act out, are more irritable, or have a shorter fuse.”

Other common “acting out” behaviours, especially during lonely quarantine time, might include excessive whining, rude talk, throwing of objects, aggression toward siblings, and crying. Parents can also look for subtle signs like a change in eating habits, regression with toileting, disrupted sleep, and more than usual lethargy.

To determine if children are acting out because of loneliness or another reason, parents can help identify what those feelings are. Start a conversation by asking questions like: You seem a bit down lately. Are you feeling sad, angry, or worried about having to stay at home so much? Do you miss your friends?

Parents should resist the urge to punish or dismiss their kids’ feelings. Instead, model empathy by acknowledging that things are different and tough, which creates a safe space for the kids to talk about their feelings. “Once they feel understood, they tend to calm down and will feel more comfortable being open with you,” Crist says.

The next step is to help children change lonely attitudes and think more positively. To help children reframe, parents can respond with: It is sad not seeing your friends more often. But it won’t last forever. It feels like it has been forever, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. Ask them: What are some of the good parts about being home more? What things they can do at home that might make them feel a little less lonely?

“Talk about things they miss and things they want to do once it’s safe,” says Mariko Fairly, a behaviour consultant and founder of Parenting Fairly, whose four- and six-year-old made a post-COVID wish list that included going to Target and Disneyland.

Activities to stave off loneliness

“Children feel good about themselves when they have something constructive to do,” Crist says. Keep your children busy during the day by engaging with activities that interest them like art or music. Or take the opportunity to teach them life skills like laundry, paying the bills, or cooking dinner. This summer, Quak says Alice learned how to make Chinese baos (meat buns) and fig jams.

Crist suggests that parents with multiple kids should carve out time to spend with each child. During the pandemic, siblings are spending more time with each other, which has either led to a stronger bond or more rivalry and conflict. “Sometimes, acting out is an unconscious way of getting the parents’ attention,” he says, advising parents to set aside 30 minutes doing whatever the child wants to do. “It helps kids feel more connected to their parents. If you have a stronger connection, you’re less likely to feel lonely.”

Research has shown that social connections, which begins during our childhood with our parents, are important to our well-being. “The time you invest to develop a secure connection with your child,” Goldstein says, “creates a powerful, resilient buffer supporting them during challenging times.”

Parenting experts agree that during the pandemic, it’s acceptable to allow your child more screen time than usual. That’s especially true if they’re online connecting with friends, Crist says. “Give them a little bit more flexibility,” he says, as long as they’re still taking care of responsibilities like chores, homework, and exercise.

If virtual play dates with friends or video chats with grandparents aren’t enough and your kid is craving an in-person meetup, Fairly recommends having – where and when possible within restrictions – a “window visit.” “It’s hard to keep kids apart so chatting though a window feels safer,” she says. “Providing kids with a sense of connection is an important part of staving off loneliness. We’ve had to get creative with maintaining social connections while distanced.”

And with schools closed, she plans to carry on beloved “school spirit days” tradition, in which her kids wear pajamas all day or get a wacky hairdo on Crazy Hair Day.

“I’m hoping to get some my kids’ friends involved, so we can video chat or send pictures to each other,” Fairly says. “When my kids are sharing an experience with others, it helps them feel more connected with their friends.”

Fairly also encourages her kids to come up with ideas on how they can brighten their loved ones’ day. “Writing a letter or drawing a picture and dropping it in the mail is a way to let someone know you’re thinking about them and acts as an initiation for them to return the gesture,” Fairly says.

Expressing gratitude and appreciation in those letters and drawings can also help stave off loneliness. A 2015 study in Europe’s Journal of Psychology found that gratitude is associated with an increase in happiness and reduced feelings of loneliness. “A lot of gratitude can come about from this tough experience,” Fassazadeh says. “We are grateful to have the things that we have—appreciation is such a powerful thing.”

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