December 26th, 2022
Humans like many animal species like to live or interact in groups. The species in general has historically benefited from collective grouping behaviors. Safety in numbers and shared food collection has allowed humans to live and thrive. Human groupings are like social concentric circles with country at the large end and family unit at the small end. It is at the extended family sized ring that people really benefit from psychologically through intimate love, education of values and elder wisdom and perceived safety.
Over the past half century, grouping behaviors have changed dramatically for many Americans. We are collectively more siloed in our activity and beliefs. We have no collective wars to fight or famine to ward off. The greatest generation grew up out of the ashes of World War II and learned that being in a group had major advantages. They also knew how to compromise. Crisis has a perverted way of uniting disparate groups for the common good.
Fast forward to 2022, the majority of Americans have very little to truly worry about except what we introspectively dream up as our issue of the day. Mazlow's hierarchy of needs are met for most. Many have turned to isolation because they either can, have to or prefer to in modern society, especially post Covid pandemic. Jobs take us farther from extended family. Schools are far from one's home. Children in a neighborhood may go to 5 different schools making the play experience weak.
What are the negative consequences of this behavior? Are people more lonely? Most people will tell you that times are different. Are they worse? Are we truly lonely?
In an excellent article in the January 2018 edition of Scientific American, author Francine Russo discusses the toxicity of Loneliness.
What is loneliness? It is defined in many ways but to me it is as an emotional sadness based on a real or perceived social isolation or the experience of being separated from others for a defined period of time.
Loneliness can be the product of a choice or an event thrust upon us. Either way, the effect can be negative.
What does the research say about loneliness? Is our response to it evolutionary?
Being excluded from a social group causes one to feel less safe from threats by others according to researcher, Dr. John Cacioppo. He goes on to note that the pain of loneliness motivates a human to reconnect with others. He calls this the RAM or reaffiliation motive. During this time, humans and animals will become hyper vigilant to social threats and undergo neural changes that increase physical stress. These changes are believed to be survival mechanisms. This is evolutionary.
Statistically, the highest risk group for loneliness is the group that is less than 25 years old. The biggest predictors of loneliness are a lack of social engagement, number of friends and the frequency of these contacts.
There are two schools of thought on why some children end up lonely. The first is obvious. They lack the natural skills or training to interact socially. The medical diagnosis of Social Communication Disorder, seen often in children with Aspergers syndrome, fits this mold. The second group is the group that I call the Eeyores of the world. They have a persistently negative self view. They perceive that their interactions with others are of poor quality despite the reality from the other side's view of the relationship or interaction.
For both groups the cycle of negativity in relationships and interactions can go on indefinitely causing the person to develop depression, disease and unfortunately on occasion suicide.
Humans that struggle to find inclusion may try to avoid these loneliness events by joining any group that will accept them. Witness the worlds of gang tribalism, cults or terrorism ideology for a clear example.
Sebastian Junger is a famed writer and filmmaker who is known best for his work chronicling war in the documentary, Restrepo. He shows the reality of war and the group mentality that pervades it on both sides.
Watching this movie and living through junior high and high school, it is clear in wartime and during adolescence that men and boys thrive in a pack mentality and will seek it out. If you are in the pack, then you are good. Being outside can be a mess for one's psyche. Ditto for young girls. Lonely.
Modern families are increasingly challenged with large numbers of single parents or two working parents making parenting difficult and time honored meal times a rare event. Extended families are ever more likely to be separated by hours of driving time blocking the passing of the natural wisdom and warmth that the older generations give to the young. The time families spend involved together has significantly eroded over the last 50 years.
These changes can increase a child's risk of loneliness and increase the potential desire to find inclusion anywhere. They will become physically and mentally stressed. Often, they will show signs of depression with isolation at home, increased sleeping behaviors, lack of desire to be involved in things that previously brought happiness. They may start to show increasing anger and hostility. This is the point at which we need to be present and aware in order to intervene when a soul is wavering toward the dark side.
Adolescence is a trying time. They need us daily even though they seem to despise our ideas and overtures. We need to be aware that the family structure that provides support for many children has changed. Work often interferes with parenting. Recognizing these changes as they exist in each child's world is the first step in identifying a potential lonely child in need. Changing the family, work or local social structure may be impossible, however, being aware of these differences can lead us to find ways to mitigate the child's lonely feelings.
Red Flags: If you note that your child struggles with making friends, is not getting invited to any parties, is getting in trouble or seems disconnected with the school, check in with them patiently. You will likely meet resistance to your first inquiry. The truth is painful for them. Be a listener and let them own their reality. Ask them, "how can I help?" They likely just need your time, but will not ask for it.
Giving of your time is probably the greatest tool in your toolkit. Spend it as often as you can. After that psychological love base is reestablished, then proceed with other interventions.
Consider joining different groups that will offer a source of friendship that aligns with your child. The easy one is a sports team, but equally beneficial can be a faith based teen group like Young Life or a vocational approach where giving is a priority. Increase the frequency of family hikes and outings. Consider adding peers to come along to challenge and encourage your child to make friendships.
In a book by Dale Carnegie called How to Win Friends and Influence People, he lays out some interesting albeit simplistic ways to attract friends. The basic principles are what is lost in those that cannot perceive emotion or social cues well.
Teaching your kids simple truths about friendship can be very powerful. I think of the character, Alan Turing, played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the movie the Immitation Game. He lacked all of the basic tools for friendship and seemed not too care. Over time that reality proved false. He would have certainly benefited from some emotional quotient education.
Helping children at very young ages can change a life for the better as they can acquire basic tools for friendship development.
1) Smiling often and calling people by their first name are simple and valuable tools to being a friend.
2) Avoid the argument that is unnecessary. It is a rare day that you prove someone wrong and they enjoy the experience. Teach your children wisely when it is ok to argue a truth and when it would be best to let it go. This is especially true when it is opinion of truth as in the case of politics or religion. Facts that are known are a place to set the record straight if it is necessary. If it is in a work environment, then showing the truth if it is provable in a way that is not aggressive and cocky is recommended.
3) Teach them to listen often. Most people enjoy being listened too. It is not necessary to understand why they feel as they do so much as they feel heard. It is not your job to make anyone feel better or fix their problem. Frankly, that is often counter productive as the obstacle that they are facing is the way to happiness through self success. Trial, error, failure, trial, error, failure, trial and success! Listen, guide and do not do for them.
4) Try not to criticize. Teaching someone in a loving way is far different in its reception than criticism. The value in your critique is low versus the negative backlash that comes with it.
5) Appreciate the little things where you can. Everyone has a quality that can be admired. Find it in the person and let them know. I find this to be extremely powerful in life. If someone is lonely and feeling under appreciated, this simple act is beyond powerful.
6) Learn about what someone likes and desires. Identifying with someones wants and desires is a great way to start a relationship.
7) Admit when you are wrong. Period!
Hopefully, teaching techniques of behavior related to friendship, joining peer groups and having more family time, will begin the process of avoiding loneliness. However, when the lonely world is not disappearing for them, get involved with a psychologist that can offer tools and management help.
Since we know that lonely children go on to be lonely adults, let's stop the cycle before it begins.
Loving and teaching,
Scientific American Article
Smart Speech Therapy Resource
Caregiver Education Article
Scientific American Mind 2008