Feeling lonely is an experience that one can feel even if friends and family are around. Some experts define loneliness as the distressing feeling that people experience when they perceive their relationships to be inadequate. For whatever reason, the relationships that a person has isn’t meeting their need for connection. Recently, a study done in London identified a possible connection between the amount of sleep a young adult gets and their experience of loneliness.
Loneliness in Adolescence
Loneliness is a difficult feeling and may be a frequent experience for teens and young adults. For instance, teens may feel as though they don’t fit in with the rest of their peers. They may feel that they don’t fit in with relatives and family. In fact, some teens may feel that they don’t fit in with the rest of the world. Adolescence is a time of significant change and a time when teens are searching for their unique identity. If teens get the message that they are “different” or “weird”, they may feel lonely and isolated from others – even if there are peers and family in their lives.
Factors that Contribute to Loneliness
The study mentioned above was administered by researchers at King’s College London, who gathered data from the Environmental Risk (E-Risk) Longitudinal Twin Study. The Twin Study provided them with information on over 2200 young adults from England and Wales. The researchers looked at the answers to the following questions to help measure their experiences of loneliness:
- How often do you feel that you lack companionship?
- How often do you feel left out?
- How often do you feel isolated from others?
- How often do you feel alone?
Researchers scored the responses to the above questions while also measure sleep quality. For instance, they looked at:
- the time it takes to fall asleep
- sleep duration
- sleep disturbances
- daytime dysfunction such as staying awake during the day
The study revealed that lonely people were 24% more likely to feel tired and have difficulty concentrating during the day. However, researchers found that there were reasons behind a lonely person’s inability to sleep well. For instance, there appeared to be a higher stress response in lonely individuals. Namely, among 70% of those who showed a connection between poor sleep and experiences of loneliness had also been exposed to violence in one form or another. This indicates that the connection between loneliness and poor sleep may be related to unresolved healing of trauma or past challenging experiences.
However, teens don’t have to experience a challenging event to feel lonely. In fact, other typical adolescent experiences can contribute to loneliness, such as:
- having a low self esteem
- feeling vulnerable to be yourself
- social anxiety
- other forms of mental illness
- social awkwardness
- family moves or other major changes
- puberty and physical changes
Because teens are going through significant life changes, they may not feel that others understand them. They may feel an inability to connect with others and this can contribute to experiences of loneliness.
What Parents Can Do to Help
To help teens with the typical adolescent experiences listed above, parents might consider the following suggestions:
- Strengthen the relationship with their teen.
- Let their teen know they are there for them.
- Be interested in their teen’s interests, hobbies, music, and friends.
- Spend time with their teen.
- Praise their teen.
- Encourage their teen to pursue their interests.
These suggestions can help create emotional connection, which can prevent loneliness. However, if parents know that their teen has been through a difficult experience, such as trauma, one of the first steps they can take is to help a teen feel safe. Creating emotional as well as physical safety can help ease a teen’s mind.
Create physical safety. Safety means various things to different adolescents. However, at the very least, a teen will feel safe when his or her basic needs are met. For instance, when a teen is eating, has a roof over their head, is not using substances, and has friends and family for support, it’s likely that they will feel physically safe.
Create emotional safety. Emotional safety is an experience where a person feels comfortable enough to be vulnerable. However, emotional safety isn’t created because someone says “we are now emotionally safe”. No, instead, emotional safety comes when parents are sensitive to their teens needs, know how to be empathetic with their teens’ feelings, are willing to listen, and refrain from being critical and judgmental.
What teens want (and actually most people want) is emotional connection. Connection often comes through emotional presence, meaning the ability to be with another person’s feelings. However, fear and anxiety (which is often the result of exposure to violence and other types of trauma) can get in the way of connection. Yet, when parents, caregivers, teachers, counselors, and other adults in a teen’s life can help a teen feel emotionally safe, it can ease their experiences of loneliness, support their ability to sleep well, and lets them know that they are not alone.
What Teens Can Do
Teens can also support their own mental health and well-being, particularly experiences of loneliness. In fact, teens might consider the following suggestions:
Let someone know how you feel. If teens told a friend, a parent, or a teacher about their feelings of loneliness it can help to immediately create connection. Likely a friend or a parent may respond by saying that they are there for you, that they want to support, or that they want to spend more time with you.
Take an online assessment of teen loneliness. If you’re feeling lonely and want to assess the level of your loneliness, try taking this quiz. However, like all non-clinical tests, it’s important to receive your results with a grain of salt. If you feel your loneliness is problematic, talk to someone you trust.
Connect with the world. This isn’t the same as connecting with a human being, but sometimes connecting with the greater human experience can help you feel more connected. For instance, you could watch a documentary highlighting what is going on in a certain region of the world. You may want to get on Facebook and find old friends, make new ones, and join groups that you appreciate. You can also, simply, go for a walk and connect with nature. Or you go camping and connect with the celestial world – the stars, constellations, and planets. Connecting with the world can help you experience your own significance inside the larger matrix of the universe.
Contact a Mental Health Professional
Lastly, both parents and teens can contact a mental health professional for support if experiences of loneliness are leading to problems at school, symptoms of mental illness, or thoughts of suicide. Getting professional help in these cases is essential to ensure physical and psychological safety.
Dr. Nalin has provided training and mentoring to students entering the field of psychology at institutions of learning including Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology, UCSD, Pacific University, and Santa Monica College. He was also instrumental in the development of the treatment component of Los Angeles County’s first Juvenile Drug Court, which now serves as a national model.
Dr. Nalin has appeared as an expert on shows ranging from CBS News and Larry King, to CNN, The Today Show and MTV. He was also featured in an Anti-Drug Campaign for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).
Dr. Nalin is a Diplomate of the National Institute of Sports Professionals and a Certified Sports Psychologist as well as a Certified Chemical Dependency Intervention Specialist. He lectures and conducts workshops nationally on the issues of teen mental health, substance abuse prevention, and innovative adolescence treatment.
In 2017 Dr. Nalin was awarded The Sigmund Freud Foundation and Sigmund Freud University’s Distinguished Achievement Award in recognition of his work with youth in the field of mental health over the course of his career.