Am I Raising a Lonely Child?

What to do if your child spends too much time alone

Young Boy Sitting on Hillside
Some children may need more time alone than others. ParkerDeen/E+/Getty Images

Question: My tween spends a lot of time alone, and I'm concerned that I'm raising a lonely child. How do I know if my child is spending too much time alone, and if so, what should I do about it?

Answer: It may be difficult for you to determine whether your child is experiencing too much time alone. That's because it's actually up to your child to determine how much alone time is healthy for him or her.

Some kids-especially those who are introverted-need large doses of alone time in order to thrive. Others function best with very little time alone. In other words, need for alone time is similar to need for sleep; there are huge individual differences. Therefore, when you're trying to decide if your child is spending too much time alone, do not compare him or her to their peers, to yourself, or to your other children. There is no "norm" for alone time, so allow your child to be an individual on this (as on many other) fronts.

That said, in one study about 10 percent of kids report feeling lonely. Loneliness is a subjective state, which makes it difficult for you to know if your child is lonely and wanting more interaction with peers. What feels like loneliness to one person may feel like an abundance of social outlets to another. For instance, a child with a high need for alone time may be perfectly content having one afterschool meeting with a friend each week.

Another child, however, may crave social gatherings every day after school and may feel extremely lonely if he or she only sees friends once a week. Even more importantly, sometimes feeling lonely is completely unrelated to the amount of social time one needs or gets. That is, loneliness can occur even when a person is having their social needs fully met.

Since loneliness is subjective and has complex causes, determining whether your child is "lonely" simply can't happen by observation alone. You must talk with your child about the issue. Set aside time for quality communication on a regular basis, such as on the way to or from soccer practice, over dinner, or during a family game night. If you keep the lines of communication open, chances are that your child will begin to give clear indications-or even state outright-that he or she's feeling lonely, if such is the case. You could also ask open-ended questions that avoid implying that she should be unhappy with her situation. For instance, you might ask, "I've noticed that you're getting some good chunks of alone time in the afternoons. That can be very rejuvenating. Are you enjoying it?" If your child seems content and is not showing signs of depression or other mental health issues, trust that she's meeting her needs for socialization and alone time, even if these needs seem "odd" to you.

If you continue to be concerned, however, consult your child's doctor or the mental health professional at your child's school for personalized help.

Source:

Furman, Wyndol, McDunn, Christine, and Young, Brennan. The Role of Peer and Romantic Relationships in Adolescent Affective Development. In N. B. Allen & L. Sheeber (Eds.) Adolescent emotional development and the emergence of depressive disorders. 2008. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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