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Teenage Isolation and How Parents Can Help

Due to a variety of influences, social isolation in adolescence can be pretty normal. While some think it is the elderly who are most affected, teenagers and young adults are actually the most socially isolated groups of people.

It’s normal for teens to feel misunderstood and isolate themselves from family and peers. This can be due to fear of judgment, anxiety, depression, and a host of other reasons. 

The Covid-19 pandemic heightened this already existing problem. According to a report by Harvard University, 61% of teens and young adults in 2021 reported feeling lonely almost all the time.

While many adults struggled with loneliness during the pandemic, this problem was elevated for teens as a result of lockdowns, virtual schooling, and social distancing.  

Other influences, like social media and video games, have also caused some teens to be more isolated with less face to face interactions. However, on the other hand, some teens have used these methods to stay connected with their peers.

Negative Impacts of Isolation on Teens

Social Isolation Among Teenagers and Young People

Humans are naturally a social species. Especially during development, it is extremely important teenagers learn to interact with the world. Dr. Shannon Gourley, a neuroscientist from Emory University describes adolescence as “a critical period during which social experience is sculpting the brain”. 

Social interaction during this stage of development helps build healthy communication skills that will increase positive outcomes in relationships, school and future professional careers. 

Studies show that increased isolation in adolescence can lead to negative outcomes during adulthood, including mental health disorders, physical health problems, substance abuse and strained relationships in home and the workplace. 

Impacts on Physical Health 

While most think isolation and loneliness only affect our mental health, did you know they can also  impact our bodies and physical health? By lowering cortisol in our bodies, social connectedness is a proven method to reduce stress.  

Cortisol is a stress hormone that increases inflammation in the body. It messes with the nervous system and has been related to a number of increased health problems and negative effects on general well being including poor immune system, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s and dementia.  

In teenagers specifically, heightened cortisol can lead to a variety of unwanted health symptoms including: 

  • Frequent headaches 
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia 
  • Muscle and Joint Pain 
  • Stomach Problems 

Social connection for teens plays a larger role than many think on their physical health. For parents, educators and anyone who works with teenagers, it’s important to keep this in mind when making decisions that could impact levels of isolation in teens. 

Impacts on Mental Health 

While social isolation may be a bit more common among adolescents, if you find your teenager frequently isolating themselves, especially when paired with other symptoms, it may be important to do a check in on their mental health. 

Frequent isolation is linked to a number of mental health and psychiatric problems including: 

    How to Cope with Teen Isolation

    The Negative Effects of Social Isolation

    As a parent, it can be difficult to watch your teen go through periods of social isolation. You may ask yourself “how do you handle a case of a child who is socially isolated?”. There are a number of effects of having no friends on teenagers. 

    Guide for Parents

    Here is a brief guide with tips and strategies to help comfort your teen who may be experiencing teen loneliness.  

    Take Interest and Listen Actively

    Ensuring you are a solid support for your teenager is important to help them feel they are not alone. Model yourself as a space safe for your teenager to vent and confide in. While some of their problems may seem irrelevant to parents, taking an interest in their daily lives will show them that someone cares. 

    Actively listening to your teen builds trust that you are an ear they can listen to. Sometimes parents want a quick fix to help their teenager combat feelings of loneliness, but providing a calm and present ear to listen to is all your teenager really needs sometimes.

    Validate Their Feelings 

    Ensure your teenager feels heard. Try to develop a “no shame zone” where they feel free to discuss their feelings. 

    Find An Activity to Do Together  

    Sometimes teens dont always want to spend time with their parents. But carving out a small time during the week focused on them is a great way to make sure they feel like they have a support system. Let your teen pick an activity that you can do together during the week. 

    Some activities, based on the interests of your kid, may include going on a nature walk, enrolling in an art or dance class together, bike rides, cooking a meal together or even playing a round of video games with your teenager. 

    Not only is this a great way to bond, but it will provide a distraction from thoughts of loneliness they may be having. 

    Group Therapy 

    If you feel your child is showing severe signs of isolation that could mark depression, anxiety or another mental health problem, enroll them in a support group if they are open to it. This could be a great way for them to connect with other peers who may be having the same feelings. 

    Support groups provide a safe space for teens to share feelings of isolation without feeling invalidated or shamed. Many teens feel they are misunderstood and cannot relate to others, which only increases feelings of isolation. By connecting with other peers, they will learn skills of empathy, self-compassion and the simple reminder that they are not alone even if they feel it. 

    Guide for Teens

    If you find you are struggling with feelings of isolation and loneliness, this is a great start to educate yourself. Feeling lonely is something that even the most successful adults can feel and is not a reason to carry shame. 

    Here are some things to think about, and coping strategies you can try, if you find yourself struggling with feelings of loneliness.

    Validate Their Feelings

    Explore Your Feelings 

    As you grow into adulthood you will learn the first step to coping with any of your internal struggles is exploring these feelings and where they come from. Sometimes it can be difficult to see that there are people in your life who care. 

    Next time you find yourself feeling lonely ask yourself what brought on these feelings. Do certain situations or people you spend time with tend to make you feel lonely? Do you struggle with making or keeping friends? 

    Asking yourself these kinds of questions may help you better understand yourself which is the first step to finding solutions that can help with these feelings.  

    Reach Out to Someone You Trust 

    Understand that it’s normal to feel a bit embarrassed when getting vulnerable with your feelings. Having even one person that you can build a trusting relationship with is extremely valuable. This could be a friend, parent, family member, coach, pastor, counselor, favorite teacher or anyone else in your community you feel comfortable opening up to.      

    Find a Hobby or Enroll in an Activity 

    Trying out new activities is a great way to build connections with others based on shared interests, and also to explore your own talents. Isolation can reduce self-esteem, trapping the brain into thinking they have no skills or interests. 

    There are many opportunities at local schools, gyms, studios and community centers to take part in. Try out a new activity to get out of your comfort zone and if you don’t like it at least you can mark it off your list as something you tried. 

    Online Support Groups 

    Tons of virtual groups exist online to not only support you through mental health challenges but to connect over similar interests as well. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are all filled with groups or pages you can join. Some act as support groups specifically for people feeling lonely, while others act as simply a space to vent or connect over shared interests. 

    Using social media and the internet to your advantage is a helpful tool. It’s important to remember not everything on social media is real, sometimes seeing others showing off happy posts can increase feelings of our own misery or isolation. 

    That being said, social media is a great way to stay connected to long distance friends, meet new people or discover community events. 

    Volunteer 

    Volunteering your time for a cause that means something to you is a great way to promote positive health benefits. It can reduce stress, chronic pain or give you a deeper sense of purpose in your life. 

    It is also a great way to connect with others who have similar interests and give back to your community. 

    Get Physical 

    Physical activity will naturally boost your endorphins leading to increased confidence, making it easier to connect with others in social settings. Think about joining an outdoor group, gym or local park that will get you moving. 

    During periods of isolation it is easy to spend a majority of time in your bed or on the couch. Get your body moving to increase energy and remove these negative feelings naturally. Exercise boosts dopamine, increases serotonin and overall has general mental and physical health benefits for teens, kids and young adults of all ages.

    Empower Them to Take Initiative

    Online Resources

    Psychology Today offers articles and a therapist directory, allowing you to search for therapists who specialize in group therapy for adolescents.

    Child Mind Institute – This organization provides resources and articles on various mental health topics for children and adolescents, including information on group therapy.

    National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) – NAMI offers information and support for individuals and families dealing with mental health issues, including resources on group therapy.

    Sources 

    Social isolation and health. (2020). Health Affairs Health Policy Brief. 

    Cashin, A. (2024, May 3). Loneliness in America: How the pandemic has deepened an epidemic of loneliness — making caring common. Making Caring Common. 

    Elizabeth A. Hinton et. al. “Social isolation in adolescence disrupts cortical development and goal-dependent decision making in adulthood, despite social reintegration.” eNeuro 2019; 10. 1523/ENEURO.0318-19.2019 

    National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Child Health and Development. (2002). Stress system malfunction could lead to serious, life threatening disease. 

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