Loneliness affects many of us at one time or another. We know that loneliness can be both the driver for and a product of poor mental health. For children this is the same.
Our society has been and continues to change fast. The pandemic has given rise to a sense of loneliness and isolation undermining confidence in daily routines for everyone. In recent times, many of us have had far less access to loved ones. This thankfully has improved, but it has left a change in routine and connection for most of us. Things don’t feel like they are back to what they were before the pandemic.
It has been impactful on our children’s development. Children and young people not being able to connect with their peers outside the home has had a detrimental impact on feelings of belonging and ‘growing up’ together.
In my own home I saw my eldest turn 18 in the middle of the pandemic, not being able to celebrate with his peers. He couldn’t go down the pub with his dad and share his first legal pint. He couldn’t learn to drive, do his theory test, do all his practicals for his college course or just get out and have fun.
I witnessed my youngest leaving primary school to embark on his new adventure at secondary school. He missed his residential trip, his school play, his leavers party and had no in person transition to his new school. He was fortunate his two siblings had gone before him, but this didn’t prepare him in the way they had been.
My middle child had already had a long period of time out of education before the pandemic, so was already isolated due to mental health challenges and neurodiversity. This period of time for her actually meant she had more interactions because the rest of the house were home with her and I. We had had an 18 month period almost prepping for the pandemic. However, it wasn’t easy for her as she missed even more developmental time with her peers, and the gap between her and her peers widened even more. The connections they have, the conversations about boys, sex, alcohol, house parties, risk taking, fashion, going out, music, sports, etc
I see the above almost as rites of passage – we assume we will experience our children doing these things – all over the world similar experiences were missed, not to be repeated as the time passed and we moved on. But this part of their lives was lost. This important part of connecting and experiencing childhood missing.
Its no wonder that children of all ages felt isolated, out of control and confused. We did as adults.
The connection between loneliness and mental health is not a new one. But it has been made apparent to all because of the last three years we have collectively endured. Going back to ‘normal’ hasn’t really happened, so our ways of connecting have still changed and perhaps evolved.
It’s important for all to make meaningful connections. Human beings thrive in communities, and this connection is vital for our wellbeing. When we have healthy connections – to family, friends and others – this can support our mental health and our sense of wellbeing. And when our need for rewarding social connections is not met, we can sometimes feel isolated and lonely – which can have a negative impact on our mental health. Without connection we become disassociated, disconnected, isolated, and can experience low mood.
As parents and carers, we play an important role in our children’s mental health.
Here are a few simple ways you can connect with your child and help support them make meaningful connections:
1) Connection with your child every day
With children being available to them when you pick them up from school or when you come home from work. Being present with them. Put your phone down - play, joke, cuddle, dance whatever works for you and your child. Being playful is great for us too!
Teens sometimes need to talk and on their terms. Make time for them. They need you just as much now as they do when they are little. Its just a bit different as the relationship evolves. Chatting in the car, and listening to music (having a good sing) is a great way to connect!
My favourite thing about all three of my kids and connection is at the end of the day. With each of them (from around 11/12 yrs. old) they’ve wanted to connect and chat just before bed… Yep, I have probably been gullible to the wanting to stay up later, dawdling tack ticks but it’s such a precious time. They share so much with me at this time of night… Their ambitions, their hopes, and dreams as well as their worries and fears. Friendship issues, worries about others, health worries, puberty, travel wishes, politics, questions about sex, periods, ‘is this normal?’, what can I do about x, career ideas, business ideas, entrepreneurial creativity, and sparks of genius! … you name it, we chat about it. Plus, we chat about their day, what is happening tomorrow, etc. If we get onto it (we all like to chat A LOT), we think about three things we are grateful for in that moment. For me, it’s the best thing about being a mum. The precious conversations and sharing we have, just the two of us. It fills my cup up as much as it does theirs. My eldest is 20 and doesn’t live at home now. But my other two both love to have this time at night to chat… sometimes its all three of us. It’s beautiful and sacred.
2) Talk to your child about important connections.
Or children learn so much from us about how to express feelings – whether that is joy from connections and sadness that comes from missing others whether its through death or not living nearby. It helps to talk about family members, family friends, elderly neighbours, people in the wider community. People who are important who have died or moved away. Even those whom you may have a challenging relationship with.
My brother hasn’t spoken to me for 2 years. My children like to talk it about it. I am very happy to talk, share and listen to their memories of him and the relationship they would like to have with him. It feels important to me to keep that connection going even if it isn’t a physical one. Talking about loved ones who have passed and your memories you share of them is a wonderful way to express joy as well as sadness, and to keep those connections alive.
3) Talk to your child about their friends.
Talking to your children about their friendships is so important, it allows them to share any concerns they may have. Be open and listen without judgement. The more you are open and can hold space for them and listen, the more they will feel safe to share with you. Listen to the little things, then the big things will be easier from them to share. Friends are so important to teenagers. If you judge their friends, they will feel you are judging them. Losing friends, being bullied, feeling and being left out is very painful and real. Let them share this with you.
4) Connect by taking an interest in their world.
You may not think their fashion is cool, but they do. Connect with them, their music, their TV shows… you may even like them and learn a thing or two!
I have to say I share my teens shoes, and she nicks some of jewellery. Don’t be dismissive of the things they like and enjoy. I’ve watched a few TV series because of my kids – Stranger Things and Outer Banks are two and they are brilliant.
5) Find time to connect as a family.
Life is stressful and busy. We all get it, and it can get overwhelming often. Make time to connect as a family. A dog walk, a movie night, board game, a debate, even the shopping… These things don’t cost money to do but you are still doing them together.
6) Try to resolve conflict and re connect after arguments.
Fallings out, arguments, disconnections happen in families between each and every member. Its inevitable. The skills here are learning to disagree respectfully, how to say sorry and how to make amends with each other. Holding grudges never help and aren’t healthy for your own mental wellbeing.
They will learn a lot of this from us as parents. I have to admit I am fiery at times, and I wonder where my kids get it from… But, saying that, we also know how to connect after arguments, how to put it behind us and how to move forward.
Disagreements are healthy and not to be ignored or brushed under the carpet. They will fester there until they explode into something much bigger.
My Grandma always told me not to go to sleep on an argument. I can see what she meant. Its helpful to be able to talk it out, or get some space from one another respectfully, but not go to sleep without a start of resolution or an agreement of space to think.
The key to connection is being open to connecting to others at any time. Seeing those little 2 minute opportunities to see and hear your child, to hug them, to hear about their wins and worries. To just be there if they need a shoulder. We want them to feel that connection is possible and available to them in some capacity.
In the busy world we live in, its so easy to feel lonely and disconnected, lets connect with our kids and show them we can be present with them.