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Helping Boys Deal With Loneliness

Loneliness is on the rise, but parents can nurture the thread of connection.

Key points

  • Loneliness is growing: 1 in 4 young men feel friendless, indicating a concerning "crisis of connection."
  • Loneliness is a public health issue associated with depression and physical health problems.
  • Social fitness is crucial for addressing loneliness.
Mikhail Nilov/Pexels
Source: Mikhail Nilov/Pexels

Loneliness is on the rise for boys, but the good news is that parents can ease this pain by nurturing the "thread" of connection.

I interviewed Daniel Petre, the author of Father Time: Making Time for Your Children, recently for my podcast, Understanding Boys. Daniel, a hugely successful technology and media executive, wanted quality time with his children but he knew that to build better relationships with them, his life would have to change.

Between us and our kids, Daniel told me, there is a thread.

If you pick it up and tug on it, he said, you need to know someone’s on the other end.

Thatt’s true for both parents and kids. As a parent, I’ve often thought about this thread of connection, as we tend to feel what our kids feel. This can be so hard.

As our kids grow up, friendships become increasingly vital to psychological well-being. But the epidemic of loneliness for boys and men means we can’t take it for granted that this need for friendship will be fulfilled. We are seeing what people like Professor Niobe Way call a "crisis of connection." Despite technology and social media, research suggests that up to 1 in 4 young men (<30) believe they have no close friends.[1]

This is a frightening statistic.

We know that loneliness is a public health issue[2]. There is growing evidence it is associated with depression and even can affect us physically. Compounding this for boys and young men is that they are less likely to ask for help, as the most common way of expressing maleness suggests that it is OK to be isolated and alone.

What can we do for our boys?

The answers are multilayered and vary for different ages. But being aware early means we can help our boys to develop "social fitness." Social fitness is essentially the skills we apply to navigate social situations. As we get older, we need to update these skills to continue to develop positive relationships, being respectful of different needs and cultural contexts.

Most often, advice for loneliness focuses on joining interest groups or sporting clubs and these are fine ideas. But here are some other things to consider:

1. Enable "flexible thinking." Empathy is at the heart of social fitness, I believe. We can help our boys consider different viewpoints. Flexible thinking means being open-minded and is often labeled as one of the primary "executive functioning" skills, the others being working memory and regulation of self and also tasks.

Flexible thinking is vital for social fitness because it helps us become more aware of how others perceive us and what their needs might be.

Here are three simple things you can do with your son:

  • In conflicts, grant concessions or reasonable reasons. So when you reach a conflict point, rather than simply blaming the other person, articulate a list of conceivable reasons that person may have acted in that way.
  • When your son has a limiting belief like "I'll never be any good at this," just add "yet" to the end of the sentence. This can open his mind to the possibility of who he is becoming—and develop a growth mindset.
  • Practise the magic "if." Put simply, this is an idea from actor training where you ask your son "What if?" and then ask something that has no limits to it. For example: "What if you could simply fast forward to the time when you worked out the answer to this question—what would you tell yourself?" This changes the dynamic of how we think about a challenge, too.

2. Model social fitness and help-seeking. As our kids get older, we remain important role models and mentors to them. For boys, seeing and hearing stories about your own friendships and how you make relationships is powerful.

Here are some things to think about and practise:

  • Model good interpersonal communication. When dealing with others, say please and thank you. Say hello to people. Model to your son how to ask questions or how to ask for help in public situations. He will be learning about how the social world works through observation.
  • Have a time in the week when you, and the people you live with/family, have a quick check-in. A good time to share how everyone is going and feeling that day or week is over a meal. Each person might speak for 30 seconds without anyone interrupting and have their feelings validated.

3. Encourage small steps. When you feel isolated and lonely, it can feel like a cycle especially when you are seeing other people on social media leading these (often imaginary) amazing lives. For a boy or young man, it can be confusing when the message about success is that you are OK by yourself, but you crave intimate and loving connections. Change isn’t immediate. It happens with small steps.

Here are a few tips you could share with your son:

  • Do a small favor for someone like holding open a door if they are carrying books.
  • Say “hi” to your classmates and smile and don’t linger.
  • Look for things you have in common with other people, rather than differences.
  • Find one thing you can be grateful for each day and share it.
  • Substitute one social-media message with an actual verbal message to someone.
  • Invest some time into finding out what you are interested in, then go do that and see what happens.

By engaging in active communication and practicing attentive listening, you can deliberately enhance the bonds of connection. This, in turn, aids your son in understanding the dynamics of social connections and developing the skills to cultivate meaningful relationships with others.




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