With a new school year having just started, it’s worth asking ourselves as parents whether we should be worried about the number of friends our children have. Increasingly, I hear parents complaining that their child seems isolated, or doesn’t have “real” friends that they spend enough time with. Indeed, a Childtrends report found that up to 30% of teens say they feel depressed, lonely or unhappy much of the time. That number may not change as those teenagers become adults. These days, an astonishing percentage of adults are living disconnected lives, with more than one quarter living alone. In big cities like New York that number can rise to one half of all households being occupied by just one person. While we can debate the benefits and harms of a life lived solo as an adult (after all, some people prefer the quiet and autonomy of their own place), children need social interactions for their psychological, social, and even physical development.
Can a child’s caregiver, however, provide enough social and emotional support for a child who is isolated? The answer is “it depends.” If you grew up on a remote farm, or were raised on a sailboat, one or two relationships might be enough. In such rare circumstances, friends are optional and kids still do just fine developmentally. That’s largely because of the intensity of their experience day-to-day and the responsibilities they have for their own survival and that of those they live with. In other words, their lived experience gives isolated children the foundation stones for resilience: a positive identity, a sense of control, a feeling that they are important and belong. And of course enough activity to keep them distracted from feeling lonely.
The typical suburban kid, however, who is living an isolated existence in some rambling home with empty rooms and parents who neglect them, and who spends her time keeping up with the latest trends on Facebook, will find nothing much good to say about being alone. Such isolation may contribute to a range of mental health problems such as increased use of drugs, depression, failing grades and even suicide.
Now before we parents push our way into our children’s lives and insist they make friends, it’s important to first ask yourself whether our child is an introvert or an extrovert. Does our child want or need more interactions with peers? In my career as a family therapist I’ve had more than a few conversations with extremely affable parents who wanted to pathologize their child’s lack of peer relationships when the child was in fact quite happy with one or two close friends and lots of time to read and daydream. Being shy and being alone shouldn’t be confused with being lonely (which is the feeling that one wants more social relationships and can’t find them).
If my child is lonely, what can I do?
If you child is lonely, that is a problem. There are two ways to tackle it (ignoring for the moment any problems with bullies that might be causing the loneliness). While I don’t believe a parent should make friends for their child, or create those very awkward play dates and parties to force their child to have friends, we can as parents offer our children opportunities that help them make friends on their own. Structure counts. Sports and music and volunteer opportunities, visits with cousins and dragging kids along to events we participate in like the neighborhood BBQ are all great strategies to bring a shy child into closer proximity with new peers. But while we can insist our child participate, we shouldn’t emphasize new friendships. Better to let proximity and continuity over time work their own magic. Eventually, if there is a good fit, a child will begin relationships with other children that match her interests and activity level.
Of course, this presumes that children have the skills they need to make friends. At a time when adults are as socially isolated as the children they are trying to help, and therefore not the best role models, we may have to offer children a little training on how to make friends. One book I like is Growing Friendships: A kids’ guide to making and keeping friends by Eileen Kennedy-Moor and Christine McLaughline. It’s an easy read for a tween, or could be used by a parent of a younger child as a coaching tool. Either way, the simple examples and graphics make it accessible without dumbing down what a child needs to learn. Indeed, no matter what behaviors your child has that are barriers to making friends (including bullying others or being bullied) she is likely to find some good strategies in the book that will help her cope better.
As your child navigates their way into a new classroom this year, if you think he is lonely, consider a little coaching. Loneliness isn’t something caregivers should ignore. If children don’t develop the skills they need to develop friendships early, they are unlikely as adults to have the capacity to form the positive relationships they will need later in life.