No parent wants to think that their teen is lonely and isolated from their peers. When you think of the high school experience, you probably think of events like dances, pep rallies, and parties that generally involve lots of people. If your teen is sitting home alone most nights, it’s easy to get worried about their social life. But what can a parent do to help a teen deal with loneliness? They’re too old for you to arrange play dates with their classmates (and attempting to do so might only isolate your teen further). But that doesn’t mean that parents are powerless. Take a look at what you need to know about helping a lonely teen.
Reconsider What Loneliness Looks Like
Before you take any action, it’s worth having a talk with your teen about whether or not they’re experiencing loneliness. Loneliness doesn’t always look the way that you think it does. Parents often assume that introverted teens are more likely to be lonely, but in many cases, introverts are simply more comfortable being alone than being in the middle of a group. It’s possible that your teen really values having time alone to read, draw, code, or pursue other solitary interests when they’re at home.
On the flip side, extraverted teens may not be as socially-fulfilled as they appear. Sometimes, even a teen who has lots of friends and attends lots of activities may feel that they don’t have strong connections with any of their peers that they spend time with, or they may feel misunderstood by peers, parents, and teachers. It’s worth checking in with even teens who appear socially active to find out if they’re experiencing feelings of loneliness.
Whether your teen is naturally introverted or extraverted, a sudden, unexplained change could be a clue as to whether they feel lonely. A teen who was previously busy with friends every weekend but who is now home a lot more often could be feeling lonely. A teen who seems restless, depressed, or angry when they previously seemed content and happy may be feeling lonely, even if you aren’t picking up on any drastic changes in how much they socialize.
A Lonely Teen May Not Have the Internet to Blame
Parents and teachers are often quick to blame the internet and social media sites for a teenager’s social isolation, but this judgment may be premature. It’s important to remember that this generation of teenagers are digital natives, while their parents and teachers were not. Participation in social media, online games, and chat groups are part of the way that teens today communicate with each other.
It’s true that interacting online to the exclusion of any other type of interaction is unhealthy. Face-to-face communication and interaction are important for children and teens to develop their social skills. But blaming the internet isn’t the solution for teen loneliness, especially when online interaction can sometimes provide a solution itself. Shy teens may find online interactions less intimidating, which can help them open up and create friendships that can then be taken offline. The internet also provides a way for teens to meet peers who they wouldn’t meet in the normal course of their day offline, which increases the likelihood of finding friends who share their interests.
Offer More Options for Meeting People
By the time your child reaches their teen years, the options that you have for helping them make friends are limited. Trying to push your teen together with other teens that you’ve picked out – the children of your friends, for example, is likely to backfire. Teens will often resent being forced to socialize with someone against their will and may be less inclined to give the other person a chance.
What can work is giving your teen more opportunities to meet people their own age. If your teen has been asking to take a karate class or a dance class, now is the time to look into it. These activities will allow your teen to meet people who share an interest with them, which is a good basis for making new friendships.
And if your teen hasn’t been asking to take a class or join a team or a group, now is the time to encourage them to do so. It’s still best not to force them, but you can research the options in your area. Depending on where you live, you may find school extracurriculars, free library-based activities and programs, teen-centered social clubs, classes offered by your city, summer camps, and more. Present your findings to your teen and ask them to choose one or two that look interesting to them. Don’t pressure them to find friends – just present it as a new opportunity to pursue an interest that they have.
Think About Therapy for Your Lonely Teen
Socializing can be difficult. Some teens may have more trouble with it than others for a variety of reasons. Teens who struggle with loneliness but can’t figure out how to better connect with their peers may benefit from counseling or therapy.
Therapy can help your teen better understand themselves and their peers, which can lead to an improved ability to make and maintain friendships. Your teen can also learn strategies for interacting with others when they’re feeling shy or nervous, resolving conflicts, and communicating effectively, all of which can make it easier for them to succeed socially. Therapy can also help teens cope with the occasional feelings of loneliness that everyone experiences and learn how to be comfortable in solitude as well as in a crowd.
Loneliness can be a real problem for teens, but it doesn’t have to be a permanent condition. It’s important for your teen to know that it’s normal to experience loneliness periodically, but they don’t have to remain lonely indefinitely. By helping your teen work through and express their feelings and devise strategies to address their loneliness, you can help set them up for building an active and fulfilling social life.
Paradigm Malibu is an adolescent mental health and drug treatment center dedicated to identifying, understanding and properly treating the core issues that impact teens and their families.