Loneliness in Children

The current pandemic disrupted our social life as we knew it. Self-isolation and quarantine slowed us down and brought new challenges. Not seeing close friends and family for an undetermined period of time, made a lot of people feel lonely. And while periods of loneliness are experienced by almost everyone, it nevertheless poses a serious risk for a person´s mental health if it is persistent.

Loneliness is commonly defined as a state of solitude or being alone. But this is not an exhaustive definition, since loneliness is not necessarily about being alone, but more about the perception of being alone and isolated. Fore this reason loneliness is a highly subjective feeling, as one might feel lonely when surrounded by people. Although loneliness is a common human emotion, it is a complex and unique experience to each individual.

Previous research showed that especially children from dysfunctional families are at a high risk of being very lonely. But why? Being alone does not necessarily make a person lonely. Instead, it is the subjective perception of being alone, which makes a person lonely. People with low self-esteem and little self-worth have been found to feel lonelier than their counterparts. Reasons for this might be personality factors, mental distress, low self-esteem, feeling of  worthlessness, and poor coping strategies. A dysfunctionality within the family structure is accompanied by various challenges for the affected children and adolescents – for example, care deficits, parentification, devaluation experiences and loyalty conflicts. The parental burdens push the child´s needs into the background. Therefore, parental mental health problems can lead to a deficit of attention and care for the children and young people. In addition, the minors might even take on additional responsibilities within in the family that cannot be performed by the parents due to their illness and hospital stays associated with it.

In addition to intra-family conflicts and tensions, the children and adolescents therefore also experience excessive stress due to the demands and responsibilities placed on them. These conflicts of loyalty within the family in combination with the lack of emotional closeness often lead to a feeling of loneliness. Out of shame, affected children and adolescents rarely express their feelings and concerns to friends or familiar adults. At the same time, they are often torn between the desire to distance themselves from their family on the one hand and a feeling of loyalty on the other hand. The problems at home have to be concealed and stand like a wall between children and their environment. All this contributes to the tremendous amount of loneliness they feel.

Although at first glance, families living together in on household do not seem to be threatened by loneliness, children and young people are very vulnerable in the current situation. Even in otherwise intact families, tensions and conflicts may occur. The current isolation and contact restrictions mean that all family members spend a lot of their time in cramped living conditions. The loss of extra-familial resources may become a problem as well. In addition, there are hardly any opportunities for spending time outside the family – school, sports clubs, gyms, cinemas, playgrounds and swimming pools are all closed. Also, contact with other people outside the home should be avoided as far as possible.

The PROCHILD Project realises how important it is to protect children´s physical and mental wellbeing. In addition to creating appropriate protection and support measures for child victims of abuse and neglect, it is essential to raise awareness to short and long-term consequences of these experiences. Loneliness is one of them and it poses a severe risk for a person´s mental health. The COVID19 pandemic may even increase the level of loneliness beyond that. This makes it even more important to sensitise professionals to the specific problem, and thus, improve the treatment of affected children and young people.

Written by Michelle Rohde from Katholische Fachhochschule Nordrhein-Westfalen

Written by Michelle Rohde from Katholische Fachhochschule Nordrhein-Westfalen