10 Ways Parents Can Help a Lonely Child Right Now
Here's what to know about loneliness in children and how to help your child not feel so isolated.
It’s hard out there for an isolated kid. If you have children in the 2-to-5-year-old age range, you’ve likely been without childcare for extended periods — whether that’s separation from your nanny, daycare, or even a grandparent. You’ve also probably stopped playdates, or cut way back; in many areas, children museums, zoos, and playgrounds have closed. Hosting or being hosted at other people’s houses is a big COVID no-no. In all likelihood you’ve worried about your lonely child and the impact the COVID pandemic has had on their mental health and social development.
So what are the signs of loneliness in children, what is and isn’t a cause of concern, and what can you do to help a lonely child? Here’s what you can do better understand the signs and to mitigate loneliness at home.
Signs of Loneliness in Young Children
Yes, your child misses their friends and family members. “We used to think that infants and very young people didn’t form connections, but we know from research that they do,” says Jane Timmons-Mitchell, Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Psychiatry, Case Western Reserve University. “Kids may remember the names of their friends and give their stuffed animals or imaginary friends their real friends’ names.”
Four- and five-year-olds may be able to talk about these feelings, though they might not explicitly call it loneliness. “Loneliness is a complex emotion,” says Dr. Polina Umylny, Assistant Director, Pediatric Behavioral Health Integration Program, Montefiore Medical Group and Assistant Professor, Pediatrics, Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “The words may be, ‘I miss Grandma,’ or ‘I wish I could go back to daycare or art class.’” Parents should keep an ear out for such phrases. As children express themselves through play, parents should also pay attention when their child is playing with stuffed animals or action figures.
For older children, loneliness may present itself as withdrawal. “One of the benefits of being with your kids more is you’ll have a better baseline, so you’ll know if there’s an increase in loneliness,” says Timmons-Mitchell. “They could be withdrawing from things they usually like to be doing, which could manifest as irritability.” Timmons Mitchell says to look for them not doing or engaging in something they normally like to do, like playing games.
Changes in behavior are also the primary sign of loneliness in younger children. “At two-to-three, they’re different from older kids cognitively,” says Rachel Annunziato, Professor of Psychology, Fordham University. “They’ll experience it more somatically with aches and pains, or they’ll be more irritable. Look for mood shifts — changes in their energy levels that indicate they’re out of sorts.”
As far as more serious issues, such as anxiety or depression, parents should be on the lookout for dramatic changes in behavior. Annunziato says to look at changes in eating and sleep habits a bit more seriously. “They could be indicative of other things, but if they’re more than transient, give a call to your pediatrician and ask, ‘Could this be some sort of manifestation of loneliness or stress?’”
Also, check for the severity of the behavior. “If the behavior is increasingly aggressive, for example, that’s a red flag,” Umylny says.
Loneliness In Children: Should You Worry?
For the most part, no, you don’t need to worry if your young child is lonely. According to the experts we spoke to, kids ages 2-5 experience loneliness differently than older kids and adults — and aren’t likely to miss their friends and family members to a detrimental degree so long as they have you around.
“Children are resilient,” Annunziato says. “Even with long-term separation from their friends or preschool, they’ll bounce back when things start to reopen.”
In the long run, your kids aren’t missing out on anything developmentally they won’t get back. “They’ll develop interpersonal skills with their siblings and parents,” Umylny says. If your kids regress, like with potty training, she adds, don’t stress that this is a skill that they had a few months ago and lost — they’ll master it again.
“It’s hard to predict the impact of the past year on children — it’s unprecedented,” Umylny says. “It’s important that children aren’t entirely isolated and that they do have social interactions. They just won’t be at the same level as before.”
10 Things You Can Do for a Lonely Child
The experts we spoke to assured us that what kids are missing out on in terms of time with friends and family is more than made up for by all the extra time they’re spending with you. All the same, there are a few things you can do to help your kids through this un-social time.
1. Prompt Them to Talk About Their Feelings
Gently encouraging your child to talk about their feelings gets them into the habit of putting their emotions into words and allows them to be heard. “Say, ‘I was thinking it’s been a long time since you’ve been with your friends,’” Umylny suggests. “’I wish we could go to their house the way we used to.’” She understands that parents may be reluctant to bring such topics up, fearing they’ll introduce emotions their child might not be feeling. But, she assures, it’s validating for children. “Let them know it’s okay to have those feelings and that they are loved and supported no matter what feelings they may have.”
2. Normalize Their Loneliness
Speaking of validation, make sure your kids understand they’re not alone in missing their friends. “Saying they’re missing someone they can’t see — that makes perfect sense,” Timmons-Michell says. “Empathize with them.” Try saying: ‘Yes, there are people that I miss, too.’ Then link it to the positive. But ‘I’m really happy that we get to spend all this extra time together. Look at the cool things we’re doing!’ “Link it to something great you’re enjoying together,” Timmons-Mitchell says.
3. Schedule Virtual Playdates
Zoom and FaceTime can help connect your kids with their friends. Of course, how well they interact with other kids via screens depends on attention spans, tech-savviness, and age. “Some kids dive right in,” Annunziato says. “For other kids, it’s more giggling or playing with the device rather than interacting. We can pop in, or do a joint playdate with the parents, which can be helpful for us, too.” How long the video conference sessions go will vary, but plan for half an hour and adjust timing as needed. Include plans for specific activities, like showing off toys or listening to a story together.
4. Schedule Calls and Video Calls with Relatives
As travel and visits with family have been severely curtailed this year, many kids miss their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, to name a few. Make calls or video chats with family members a part of your weekly routine. “It’s something everyone can look forward to and can be a regular engagement,” Annunziato says. Remember that your older relatives are likely experiencing isolation and loneliness, too — they could benefit as much or more to hear from your kids (and you).
5. Have Them Send Letters and Cards
Go old school and connect with your children’s friends and family with mail. “There are all sorts of things that you can do for outreach,” Timmons-Mitchell says. “While you’re creating the letter or card, you can talk about who it is you’re making it for, what things your children like about them, what they remember about them, and what they can do together in the future.”
As with calls to older relatives, sending letters and cards to people in isolation is an act of kindness. “Isolation is one of the toughest things about this year, with family members who can’t see their families,” Timmons-Mitchell says. “Target loneliness by having your children draw a picture and put it in a card — something that reaches out to others who are lonely now.”
6. Keep (or add) Structure, Routine, and Traditions
At this point, you’ve likely established new daily and weekly routines since COVID began. Given the ever-changing nature of COVID restrictions, it’s essential to be flexible with schedules — but do try to keep to regular routines, as children crave consistency. Keep mealtimes, nap or quiet times, and bedtimes roughly the same every day. “Regular schedules create structure and safety for kids,” Annunziato says.
The holidays are opportunities for traditions — and for creating new ones. “Parents may feel a lot of disappointment and guilt about not being able to provide the holiday experience they may want to,” Umylny says. “So establish new traditions for your family.” Seasonal activities include holiday baking and making ornaments — activities for you to unplug and give your kids your undivided attention.
7. Get Outside
All experts agreed that kids need physical activity and time outdoors for their well-being and emotional health. If a playdate at the park can be socially distanced and safe, great. But even just you and them kicking a ball back and forth or running around an empty baseball diamond will help you both feel better.
8. Take Care of Yourself
Your concerns about your children’s lack of social interaction are legitimate — and also a reflection of your feelings of isolation, possibly. “Parents are filling in the gaps in a lot of ways,” Annunziato says. “As parents, we need to make sure we’re taking care of ourselves to optimize our interactions with our children.”
“The most important thing for parents is to acknowledge it’s been an extraordinarily difficult year,” Umylny says. “You may be feeling the loss of a loved one, you may be scared about finances, you may feel a sense of hopelessness that we’ll never return to a pre-COVID world. Acknowledge what effects the last year have had on you. Children pick up on what their parents are feeling, if their parents are anxious or sad. Make sure you address your own struggles and get whatever mental health support you need.”
9. Worry Better
As part of self care, cut yourself some slack. “Just because your kids were seeing other kids five days a week at daycare doesn’t mean you need to plan five days’ worth of virtual playdates,” Timmons-Mitchell says. “Once a week, or once a month — it’s enough.
“It’s just too much, trying to do all the stuff you need to do for your job and be your child’s teacher and social director,” she notes. It’s helpful not to put undue expectations on yourself. Parents are questioning themselves and beating themselves up, but it’s important not to. “Your kids need you to be available, and you can’t be available if you’re worrying,” she adds. “As much as possible, be present and don’t worry.” If anything, set aside a specific 15 minutes to worry and then move on.
10. Focus on Gratitude and Helping Others
This year, it’s been easy to focus on all the things we haven’t been able to do. But for your kids’ development, set an example of focusing on gratitude. Ask your kids to mention one thing they’re grateful for as part of their bedtime routine. Then connect it with someone in need.
“It’s useful to teach kids to give back,” Timmons-Mitchell says. “It lets them know we’re all in this together, and that we can help someone who has more need. Food and toy drives may be limited right now, and money donations may not make sense to young children, but you could think about doing something for the grandparents in nursing homes — giving as a way to reduce the loneliness of other people.” Something like this, she says, generates a lot of energy. “It’s surprising how good it makes someone feel to do something good for other people.”