How to help children with coronavirus loneliness

Harriet Gridley, UK Director at No Isolation discusses how best to support a child suffering from loneliness as a result of sustained lockdown.

September is upon us, which means one thing for parents and children alike: term time. With our teachers, students, support staff and many other members of the education ecosystem returning to their respective schools, many will be excited to engage in-person, after months of remote learning. Unfortunately, this won’t apply to everyone.

a bored child during the pandemic

As a company that specialises in understanding, and consequently reducing, the impact of loneliness, we have been concerned about the impact of coronavirus and disrupted schooling on young people—and we decided to take action.

Throughout the summer, No Isolation worked with independent researcher, Henry Peck, to better understand the effect of lockdown on educational and emotional development in school-aged children. We collected responses from 1,005 parents and carers of 1,477 children spanning primary and secondary school and were saddened to find that more than three-quarters of these children were lonely some or all of the time during the lockdown.

"More than three-quarters of children were lonely during lockdown"

We were alarmed to find that, according to our research, an estimated 540,000 will continue to stay at home, due to mental or physical health concerns, directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic. For those children that aren’t able to attend classes in person, maintaining some form of connection with their peers is vitally important: both to protect their educational development and to prevent them from becoming isolated.

child homeschooling

Loneliness is difficult to describe and verbalise, and children especially can struggle with this. They may understand that something is wrong, but not grasp how to articulate their feelings, or even if they should. Spotting “symptoms” of loneliness is difficult, as loneliness is a very subjective feeling. Unfortunately, with 76% of parents reporting that their children, aged 5-16, were lonely some or all of the time during lockdown, we cannot afford to be reticent about discussing how to tackle loneliness, particularly amongst those who will not be able to rejoin their classmates when schools open again.

To help children understand that their feelings are natural, normal and relatable, parents need to open up a dialogue around what loneliness is, emphasising that feeling lonely is completely normal and a topic that is safe to talk about.

"We cannot afford to be reticent about discussing how to tackle loneliness"

For adults, loneliness is a stigma, which means that often we are not open enough about it with each other, let alone with our children. As a consequence of this taboo, many people are not educated on what loneliness actually is, or what it feels like. In truth, loneliness is a normal, but also very personal, feeling. Typically, when simplified, the feeling is best described as a discrepancy between desired and actual social contact. Loneliness does not discriminate on age or borders, and at some point in life, we all experience it. Big changes in our lives make us particularly vulnerable.

Breaking the taboo around loneliness will go a long way in encouraging children to share their emotions and begin to address the issue.

young man alone in his room

There is, of course, no immediate "fix" for loneliness, but there are steps we can take to help young people to feel more able to open up about how they are feeling:

  1. We need to be able to recognise and acknowledge loneliness.
  2. We need to break the taboo around loneliness by talking about it more and normalise it. Then it will be easier to accept for ourselves and others around, and thus a dialogue can be started.
  3. We need to learn to ask for help. Sometimes these emotions need to be talked through with family or with a professional.

Another way that we can tackle social isolation is through the use of tailored tools. In a world in which technology has become a means of making the effective members of society more effective, logically it can also be used to find a solution for those who need it most.

"Having an engaging experience over a video conference can be very difficult for some children"

Video calls have become the norm during the pandemic, but they are not necessarily the answer for those studying from home. When everyone is online in a video call, it can be an inclusive and communal experience. However; if everyone is gathered and a single student is watching through a video call, it can have the opposite effect. Although such calls allow you to see the faces of many other participants, they can also be incredibly isolating because, when on such a call, it can be hard to know how or when to speak up or interact. Consequently, having an engaging experience over a video conference can be very difficult for some children, making it easy to switch off, perpetuating feelings of loneliness.

If you’re worried about how your child might be coping, or concerned that a more digital life could be leaving them isolated, the first thing to do is talk with them: meaningful solutions should be developed in partnership with the people they’re aimed at. Now, more than ever, we should be listening to children and helping to make sure they are heard in these turbulent times. They are facing the same pandemic that we are, and they deserve all of the help and support they can get.

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