How the Grief of Loneliness is Hurting Kids’ Mental Health

Here’s What Parents Need to Know

Earlier this year, United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy advised that loneliness is a public health epidemic that causes lasting harm to physical and mental health. We are missing out on important social connections, and so are our kids. 

“1 in 2 adults report measurable levels of loneliness, and the group that’s actually most lonely in our population is actually young people,” Dr. Murthy told NPR. A recent study found that 40% of children and adolescents experience mild to moderate loneliness, and 10% feel severely alone. It’s important that we address the loneliness epidemic among young people. Persistent feelings of isolation can contribute to anxiety, depression, and physical health problems. 

Loneliness is also an inevitable part of grief. From the aftermath of the pandemic to increased gun violence in school, young people are facing significant losses. Grieving those losses is often an isolating experience. Kids can feel like nobody understands what they are going through. It’s not just grief that can increase feelings of loneliness, either. When young people feel alone, they may also grieve the friendships and connections they used to have or wish were part of their lives.

“Isolation and loneliness are two widely unrecognized forms of grief. As we strive to educate about how broadly grief experiences stretch, we cannot ignore the impact these shared life experiences have on all of us, especially with our young people,” Judy Pedersen, Founder and Executive Director for Hearts of Hope, explains. 

In this post, we’ll explain how chronic loneliness impacts young people, provide examples of how to help our children combat loneliness, and explain what Hearts of Hope is doing to make a difference.

What is the impact of loneliness on kids?

Kids are resilient in many ways. But the combination of COVID-19, increasing gun violence in schools, and a growing mental health crisis that began even before the pandemic means that even for the most well-adjusted young people, it’s difficult to be a child today. For youth who struggled with anxiety, school performance, or any of the social pressures typical of growing up before lockdowns and remote learning, the pandemic may have exacerbated their struggles. 

Parents and teachers are often quick to blame technology and social media for kids’ declining mental health. Though technology can have a negative impact on sleep quality, self-esteem, and interpersonal relationships, the reality is that it is not the root cause. Social media use tends to mirror whatever young people are dealing with offline. Those who are depressed and lonely are more likely to spend excessive time online, while those with enriching friendships don’t typically feel the same pull. Technology exaggerates underlying issues.

Dr. Murthy’s report identified that among young people ages 15-24, there’s been a 70% decline in time spent together in-person over the last two decades. The loneliness epidemic goes back long before the COVID-19 pandemic, and it may factor into the mental health crisis we are seeing among kids. Along with increased depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide, loneliness can worsen sleep, weaken your immune system, and lead to weight gain. Any of these factors may lead to a vicious cycle as the physical and mental impacts of loneliness feed into one another. 

How to help young people combat loneliness

Whether you are a parent, family member, teacher, or friend, the first step in helping kids with loneliness is understanding how they are feeling. A young person feeling chronically alone might:

  • Appear sad or withdrawn
  • Seek attention with misbehavior
  • Cling to trusted adults
  • Lose interest in things that once brought them joy
  • Speak about being left out

Many of these symptoms come with the territory of growing up. The best thing you can do is start a conversation with the children and teenagers in your life about how they are feeling. Something as simple as explaining what loneliness is can be a helpful start to these conversations. Many young people will recognize that they aren’t feeling content, but they might not understand why. 

It’s also important to validate young people’s experiences. Acknowledge that feeling alone is difficult and you hear whatever it is they choose to share with you. Support your child’s involvement in social activities, like sports and groups. Set screen time limits, and encourage them to connect with their online interests in the real world. Counseling or support groups specifically designed for young people can also offer a deeper dive into helping kids address loneliness and improve their mental health. 

Hearts of Hope is helping young people connect

In response to the epidemic of loneliness and need for broader grief resources, we created a new program in schools called GRIT. GRIT stands for Grief Resilience Inspires Triumph. It is an innovative, in-person program that helps young people practice resilience by teaching kids evidence-based skills to strengthen their resilience. 

The Inspiration and Triumph pillars of GRIT are particularly geared toward fostering social connection between young people and within their communities. During the Inspiration session, Students identify people in their everyday lives who inspire them, from older adults to peers around them. GRIT facilitators remind students that reaching out to those inspirational people is part of their resilience toolkit. It is a powerful exercise in reminding young people that they are not alone.

In the Triumph session, students paint ceramic hearts in an art workshop. They also write a letter of appreciation to a teacher in their community, and then give the heart and letter to the teacher they choose. This activity strengthens bonds and connections that help kids thrive.

Hearts of Hope has decades of experience cultivating social connections that help people heal. We understand how devastating the cycle between loneliness and grief can be, especially for young people. But Time and time again, we have seen how much of a difference it makes when people come together in even the most difficult circumstances. As young people face the challenge of loneliness in a changing world, Hearts of Hope is here to provide programming and support in schools, workplaces, and communities.

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