When Your Child Feels Alone

Alexandra Delis-Abrams, Ph.D.

Guidelines for what to do when your child feels alone are as important as any parental instruction. At some time or another, all kids feel lonely. But by really listening to kids talking about their feelings and finding the causes of those sentiments, you can give your children a magic wand for happiness. The magic lies in letting them know that they are worthy and deserving of friendship—a gift that will make your kids’ biggest dreams come true.

     The impact of loneliness for a child can easily be underestimated. It’s common to be distracted by parental responsibilities like providing shelter, nutritious food, and warm clothing and lose sight of what’s really upsetting our children. If you attentively listen to kids talking about their feelings, you may be surprised to learn just how many kids feel lonely. And parents may be shocked to learn the extent to which their behavior sustains and adds to a child’s sense of isolation.

     Take the example of a seven-year-old girl, Christa, who when asked to draw a picture of disappointment, offers an image of a friend throwing snow in her face and states that, “True friends don’t do that. I’m going to find a new true friend.” The story illustrates a major cause of a childhood sense of loneliness—expectation of friendship. Our young friend is clearly versed in the good characteristics to seek in a companion, but her expectation of friends doesn’t allow for the ups and downs that come with being human. Teach your child that isolated incidents of poor behavior don’t make a bad person and that there are outside influences impacting that behavior that she is not responsible for. Christa needs to realize that despite the disappointing action, she is still deserving of friendship. An alternative answer to a child’s friend causing disappointment could be to explain that it’s okay to be upset, but you must understand that this friend still cares for you and one incident doesn’t determine a friendship’s fate.

     The same formula for kids and disappointment exists at home. Kids may complain that, “Dad is frustrated and Mom yells a lot,” or, “My dad is on the computer all the time. Dad works too much.” Also familiar is, “When Mom is grouchy she ignores me.” The kids feel lonely in this environment of grown-up stress that they can’t understand. At the same time, adults are caught up in their responsibilities and unaware of how much their actions and reactions are causing their child to feel isolated. In such situations, the child may then misbehave, likely as bid for attention, and be consequently punished. Carefully evaluate punishment and kids. While bad behavior must be addressed, consider that original cause and make your response appropriate and constructive.

      If a child acts out due to loneliness, will punishment make her more lonely and prone to repeat her undesirable actions? Our young subject tells us, “When I get punished I’m not allowed stories—not even reading by myself.” Christa is placed in a situation where she is will experience more loneliness and feelings of inadequacy. She needs to understand why her parents couldn’t give her needed attention at that particular moment and that she wasn’t the cause of their original bad mood. Systematic punishment will only reinforce her feelings of insignificance.

     Another common factor in childhood loneliness is sibling interaction. When siblings are mean to each other, the resulting insecurity carries over to other social interactions. When our young friend is asked what she’d wish for if she had a magic wand for happiness, she replies, “For my sisters to be nice to me.” And many kids’ biggest dreams do concern love and acceptance from their immediate family members. Family is after all their primary peer group, so beliefs formed here will dictate the course of other social interactions. Christa then reveals more of her beliefs about friendship when she offers, “If I tell something nice to them, and maybe they’d be nice back.” She sees kindness as based on reciprocity. This belief that is a good social fundamental to a degree, but is also an ideal that can lead to disappointment when not realized. Again, she is making herself responsible for the behavior of others. And, just as her friend’s snowball assault and her parents’ inattentiveness weren’t her fault, neither is her sisters’ mean behavior.

     True, all parties need to be more aware of how their actions impact their friend, daughter, and sister, but the most powerful solution lies in giving Christa the tools to feel good about herself and know that she is absolutely worthy of true friends, caring parents, and loving sisters. Throughout your children’s lives they will not be able to control the actions of others, but they can control how they feel about themselves. That positive self-esteem will bring “true friends” on the present-day playground and for the rest of their lives.

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Copyright September 2004, Reprint with Permission Only