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How to overcome the loneliness of youth | Psyche

Photo by Kevin Abele/Getty

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Guide

How to overcome the loneliness of youth

It’s extremely common to feel lonely when you’re young. Many strategies can help, the key is finding what works for you

by Lily Verity & Pamela Qualter + BIO

Photo by Kevin Abele/Getty

Need to know

If you’ve come across visual portrayals of loneliness before, it is likely that you see loneliness as someone (usually a person aged over 65) sitting alone, maybe in the dark, staring wistfully into the distance or longingly out of a window. Such images are misleading, however: researchers have actually found that those who report experiencing loneliness the most are young people, and such images of solitude do not match the experience of loneliness during adolescence and young adulthood. Those years are typically spent surrounded by people: at school, at home or at work. According to the BBC’s Loneliness Experiment, which surveyed 55,000 people from across the world, 40 per cent of those aged 16-24 said that they felt loneliness often or very often.

Loneliness can be defined as a negative emotional reaction to a discrepancy between the relationships we have and those we want. This means that we might feel lonely in the company of others if we do not feel like they understand us or share common interests with us. Although loneliness is often a difficult experience – characterised by emotions such as sadness, frustration, anger and hopelessness – it can help motivate us to reconnect and to re-evaluate our relationships so that we can build on (or seek out) the ones that mean the most to us. When we are lonely, we might pay more attention to how our interactions with others make us feel in order to establish what we need to change. It is thought that this mechanism is linked to an evolved need for us to be part of a group, to protect us from being alone and vulnerable.

Imagine the following scenario – and perhaps you can relate. You have a close group of friends throughout high school, and some of those friends follow you to college. At first, you’re happy to have these high-school friends by your side. But as you all get more settled, your high-school friends start to form new friendships with people whom you don’t share interests with. You are left wondering where you fit in, and you find yourself missing the closeness that you had with your friends in high school: you start experiencing loneliness. You might respond to these feelings by making an effort to fit in with the new friend groups, trying to find common ground. Or, you might come to the conclusion that those old friendships no longer fit with who you are, so you seek new ones.

For most people, loneliness does not last long; it is temporary and will dissipate once they reconnect. But for some people, loneliness can become chronic and have a detrimental impact on their wellbeing. One reason why people get stuck in a state of chronic loneliness is the stigma associated with it. Those who experience loneliness are often characterised in negative ways: as reclusive, negative thinkers, or socially awkward, which means that people do not want to be associated with loneliness. Someone who is surrounded by others might not believe that they should qualify as lonely because it is typically portrayed as being about social isolation – a lack of contact with other people. They might see their feelings of loneliness as wrong, leading to self-judgments that prevent them from seeking support. However, research shows that loneliness is a normal experience that most people will encounter at some point in their life.

While loneliness can happen at any point during our lives, there are certain characteristics of adolescence and young adulthood that tend to give rise to loneliness. These are a few of the common experiences that young people mention as reasons for feeling lonely:

Desire for friends

Adolescence and young adulthood are times when our friendships are increasingly important in providing us with emotional support. Research indicates that young people have higher expectations of their friendships than adults do; they show a preference for larger friend groups, more intimacy and companionship, and higher frequency of contact with friends. When we consider that loneliness serves the function of keeping us safe within our social world, it makes sense that feeling like we do not ‘fit in’, as so many young people feel, gives rise to loneliness.

Identity changes

Part of adolescence and young adulthood that impacts our relationships is our developing sense of self – discovering who we are. That often involves changes to values, beliefs and aesthetic, and trying out new things. It can be challenging when your friends are going through the same process, but might not want to follow the same path as you. Perhaps you learn that your values are not compatible, or perhaps you do not feel accepted by your old friends. In some cases, you might get picked on for not fitting in. That can be an issue particularly for members of groups who experience stigma based on race or ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender or disability, or who have existing difficulties with mental health. It is important to remember that many people don’t feel as though they have found their ‘crowd’ during their teen or early adult years, but time and experience bring new opportunities to develop such relationships.

Transitions

Life events such as moving to a new school or university can be challenging. Being in an unfamiliar environment requires energy to adjust. It often involves separation from supportive friends and family. Difficulties forming new relationships can mean that, for example, students away at university for the first time perceive a lack of social support.

Difficulties at home

Young people often report feeling loneliest at school, whereas home is a comforting space. But when there are difficulties at home – such as arguments or tension with family members, the departure of supportive family members, or family mental health or substance misuse issues – these can exacerbate feelings of loneliness. Those experiencing loneliness sometimes report feeling dismissed by their parents when they try to talk about their loneliness.

Thinking patterns

Loneliness is underpinned by a hypervigilance to social threats, meaning that those experiencing loneliness tend to look out for aspects of their social world that could lead to them being rejected by others. Some young people who experience loneliness might begin to interpret their interactions with others more negatively. Often people experiencing loneliness will blame themselves for how they feel and their seeming lack of success in finding the connections they desire. That can lead to a lack of motivation to try to connect with others, because they believe it will be unsuccessful. Those experiencing loneliness are more likely than others to consider any lack in social ability as an unchangeable trait rather than a changeable behaviour. Because of that, this Guide refers to ‘those experiencing loneliness’, reiterating that it is an experience that can be overcome; we do not talk about a ‘lonely person’, which wrongly implies an unchangeable characteristic.

We have extensive experience exploring what loneliness is like for young people and, in this Guide, we’ll share what we have learned about how to get through it. Lily’s research focuses on listening to what young people have to say about loneliness to find out how they experience it and how they can cope with it. Pamela is a longtime expert in the field, having investigated youth loneliness for the past 25 years. Although loneliness is challenging, it can be overcome, and can ultimately help us to connect with the people in whose presence we feel best.

What to do

Because loneliness is a complex experience, it cannot necessarily be attributed to just one cause, and therefore might not be alleviated by just one solution. What works for one person might not work best for another. If you find yourself feeling lonely and it seems like nothing is helping, do not give up hope – it is likely that you have not yet found the strategy that works for you. Here are some practical steps you can try, starting with what you can do on your own and moving on to ways to connect with others:

Re-evaluate negative thoughts

Negative self-talk can keep us stuck in a loop of loneliness: it deters us from reaching out to others and keeps us feeling low. It can be helpful to first recognise that having a thought does not make it true. You might think, for example, that your friend is not interested in talking to you, but that does not make it true – perhaps, instead, your friend is distracted by a problem they’re having. If we assume it’s true that our friends are not interested in talking to us, it can contribute to creating distance between us and our friends, encouraging us to withdraw and reinforcing the idea that we are disconnected from them.

Taking inspiration from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), we can reappraise the situation. For example, imagine that you’re talking in a group with your friends and you say something but no one responds. If you then have the thought Nobody is interested in what I have to say so I should just stay quiet, then your regular response might be to accept the thought as truth and stay quiet. Instead, you can challenge the thought by questioning what value it has: Has believing ‘no one is interested’ helped you? Does believing that you should stay quiet make you feel more or less acknowledged by your friends? Are there other explanations for why no one responded? This can encourage you to consider alternative perspectives rather than accepting negative thoughts as absolute truths.

Embrace the benefits of alone time

Plenty of enjoyable activities that can be done when we’re alone – such as going for a walk, reading, listening to music or picking up a hobby – can provide self-fulfilment while distracting us from our emotions. By taking your mind off of how you feel when you’re alone, you are better able to let the emotions pass, as opposed to dwelling on negative thoughts and prolonging or intensifying those feelings.

Alone time has other benefits, too. Particularly when you spend a lot of time around others at school or work, it can give you the space to recharge and to reflect on events that have happened in your life. Young people report using alone time as an opportunity to relax, or to calm down when they are feeling frustrated.

Express your feelings through creative means

If you are not currently comfortable talking to someone about your feelings related to loneliness, it might help to write about how you feel. That could be in a daily diary, or as a ‘brain dump’ where you write down your thoughts as they happen. Writing down your thoughts can help you to identify what it is that you feel negatively about. You might be able to identify the pattern that your upsetting thoughts tend to follow. For example, among the random thoughts that you don’t pay much attention to, you could have an upsetting thought about an awkward interaction at school: Remember when I tried to talk to Tom in class? That was awkward. And you might notice that your response is to think additional negative thoughts about yourself: He was so blunt, he clearly didn’t want to speak to me, but I just kept talking… I bet I seem so annoying… Why do I act like that?… No one wants to speak to me… Writing down and recognising the thoughts that spark further negative thinking gives you a starting point for practising the thought re-evaluation strategies described above.

Alternatively, creating a piece of art that depicts how you feel, such as a drawing, a poem or a song, might help you to make sense of your feelings. When you don’t feel comfortable opening up, or you feel that you do not have the words to explain how you feel to someone, it could be useful to start by writing or drawing how you feel. If you then get to a point where you do feel comfortable opening up, you can use what you create as a starting point for the conversation.

Reach out and talk to someone you trust about loneliness

If you are experiencing loneliness, you might find it daunting to talk to someone about it. Perhaps you fear that the person you confide in will be burdened by what you tell them. But by reaching out, you could find that the person you talk to has experienced something similar. Receiving empathetic and accepting responses from others about our problems can help to relieve self-doubt, and in turn enhance our relationship with the person we confide in. Consider who you would feel most comfortable opening up to, whether that is someone you live with, such as a parent, sibling or other family member, or someone outside of your home, such as a friend at school or in your neighbourhood.

It might help to start by outlining why you are opening up, and what you wish to get from the conversation – such as whether you want their advice, or just a listening ear. That way you reduce the likelihood of the person responding in a way that you find unhelpful. Another way to begin is by talking about loneliness more generally, asking the person if they have any experience of feeling lonely or know anything about loneliness. And starting out with a face-to-face conversation is not the only option – you might be more comfortable opening up by talking over text or writing them a letter.

If you feel like talking to someone you already know wouldn’t be ideal for you, it could help to talk to a counsellor or psychologist instead. Sometimes, talking to a person who is not directly involved in your life and has no links to the people in it can feel more secure. Additionally, a professional can ensure that, in opening up, you remain focused on finding solutions as opposed to simply ruminating about negative events. Speaking to your doctor about finding a suitable psychologist is a good way to get started. For students, school or university counsellors are another potential resource. If you do not have face-to-face access to a professional, you could find an online counselling service such as Childline in the United Kingdom, Crisis Text Line in the United States, or Lifeline in Australia.

Arrange plans

Reaching out does not always have to mean opening up. Perhaps you have been waiting for an invite to hang out with people at your school. Instead, it might help to be the one who reaches out first; you could keep it simple by arranging to go for a coffee or a walk in the park. Of course, you might be thinking: But what if they say no? That is a risk, but by avoiding potential rejection you also avoid potential connection.

Another way to take the initiative socially is to join a group that’s focused on a hobby or activity of yours, such as reading and discussing books or playing football. Finding a club centred on what you enjoy ensures that you have at least one common interest with others who attend; it means you have something to talk about, and has the potential to lead to friendships with like-minded people.

Being more involved in your community can help create a sense of belonging. Volunteering can be a great way to get involved and to develop friendships organically by working with others towards a shared goal. Volunteering opportunities can often be found by searching ‘volunteering in [the place you live]’. If your town has a Facebook group, opportunities are likely to be advertised there.

Form online friendships

It’s important to recognise that not everyone has people they connect with at their school, and that is okay. You might find that the people who like the same things that you do and think in similar ways are not at your school. Online groups can help you identify people who share your interests. There are Facebook groups covering everything from animal rights to your favourite band. Search for those based in your area (eg, ‘K-pop fans London’) if you want the possibility of meeting people face to face. (Just make sure that you do not give out any personal information, and meet in a public space and in a group rather than one-to-one if you do decide to meet in person.) Social media is often talked about as a negative influence on young people but, when used to interact directly with friends, it can be helpful for building relationships and might reduce feelings of loneliness. Online forums can also be places to anonymously share your thoughts and feelings with people who have gone through similar experiences.

Key points

  • Loneliness stems from a difference between the relationships we have and those we want to have. It’s possible to feel lonely even if you are surrounded by other people.
  • Developing identities, life transitions and discouraging patterns of thoughts are among the factors that can make adolescence and young adulthood peak times for loneliness.
  • Re-evaluating negative thoughts about yourself and your interactions with others – which includes questioning the accuracy and value of such thoughts – is useful in overcoming loneliness. It allows you to see how things could be different and can motivate you to try reconnecting with others.
  • A positive attitude toward alone time can allow you to use that time purposefully, such as by reflecting on daily events or engaging in a hobby that you enjoy.
  • Expressing feelings through creative means, such as writing or drawing, can help you to make sense of what you are feeling and can be used as a prompt to aid you in explaining how you feel to someone you trust.
  • Opening up to others about feeling lonely can be challenging, but it can help relieve you of held-in emotions and make you feel closer to those you confide in.
  • While it’s understandable to want to be invited to socialise, it is worthwhile to try being the one who initiates plans. Even though there’s a chance that someone will decline, it creates the possibility of connection.
  • Making new friends can be easier if you start with a common interest – that’s why joining a social group, even one online, can be a good starting point.

Learn more

What to do if you know someone who’s experiencing loneliness

Whether or not you experience loneliness yourself, it is likely that someone you know will at some point. While it might be hurtful to hear that someone you care about is feeling lonely, it is important to acknowledge that there are many different reasons why someone might feel that way; it does not mean that they consider their relationship with you to be deficient.

Because loneliness is complicated, it can be difficult to know how to help someone overcome it, particularly if you have not personally experienced it. This section of the Guide will focus on meeting that challenge.

What to look out for

The stigma attached to loneliness means that young people are often reluctant to seek help for it. Knowing the signs and triggers of loneliness can help you to look out for friends and family members who are feeling lonely but are afraid to say so.

  • Negative self-talk. Someone who is feeling lonely might talk about themselves in a critical manner, particularly in terms of their social skills.
  • Friendship difficulties. They might talk about having frequent arguments with friends or not feeling accepted or understood by friends. In particular, someone who begins to withdraw from their friends and family, cancel plans and spend more time on their own might be feeling lonely.
  • Anxious disposition. In interviews, young people experiencing loneliness often seemed shy and uncomfortable. Interviewers were quite complimentary of them, though, describing them most commonly as ‘bright’, ‘friendly’ and ‘nice’.
  • A disruptive life event. Bereavements, moving schools or to a new place, and relationship breakups can be significant life events that disrupt our relationships and might give rise to loneliness. If someone you know has experienced a change in their life, check in with them about how they’re feeling about it.

Provide emotional support and comfort

It is important for those experiencing loneliness to know that there are people around them who care and are willing to support them if they need it. If you are a friend, you can help by trying to be open and approachable if someone wishes to confide in you, and by ensuring that what they tell you is not shared with your other friends. Try to listen, and offer advice only if it is asked for; focus on letting your friend be heard.

If you are a parent or other caregiver, it is particularly important that you are careful not to dismiss a young person who comes to you about feeling lonely. While it might be true that what they are going through is a common experience in youth, it is important for them to know that their feelings are valid because, for them, it could be a painful experience regardless of whether it is temporary. If you do not feel like you have the tools to help them with how they are feeling, it might be beneficial to help them find support from a professional.

Organise social activities

If you know or suspect that someone is feeling lonely, it might help to organise a social activity that includes them. If someone feels singled out, it might contribute to stigmatising loneliness, so it is best to focus on activities that will help everyone to feel included. For example, at a homework club, the focus of the event is not on the person experiencing loneliness, and socialising can happen naturally. If you are a friend of someone experiencing loneliness, it can help to ensure that they are included in the social plans you make, even if you assume that they won’t want to attend – inviting them along will help them to know they aren’t being overlooked. For those experiencing loneliness, a little can go a long way; small gestures such as a text to let them know that you’re thinking about them don’t take much effort, but show that you value them.

Links & books

The results of the BBC’s Loneliness Experiment, a survey of 55,000 people over the age of 16 years, give us insight into who feels lonely, why, and how to help.

Tell Me About Loneliness reports the findings of in-depth interviews that asked young people (8-12 years) in Belgium and Italy about what they think loneliness is, and what strategies young people and those around them can use to help alleviate loneliness.

The loneliness researcher Gerine Lodder’s TEDx Talk covers some of the misconceptions about loneliness, such as the idea that phones and social media are the primary causes of loneliness in young people.

Claudia Hammond of the BBC Loneliness Experiment spoke to three people about their personal experiences of loneliness.

The book Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection (2008), by the social neuroscientist John T Cacioppo and the writer William Patrick, explores the evolutionary roots of loneliness and what science reveals about its consequences for mental and physical health.

Experts in the UK (including us) produced a one-page guide on how to help young people overcome loneliness, which examines research on youth loneliness during COVID-19 lockdowns.

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18 August 2021