Supporting children through social isolation

Supporting our children through social isolation and loneliness.

Mental Health – friendships, loneliness, connection.
As we come through the 6th week of lockdown, the focus of the NHS outside of the Covid 19 crisis is turning to the most pressing issues outside of the virus: to reinstating some cancer treatments, and to mental health support. 
Mental health interventions are now such a priority because of the toxic effects of loneliness and the need for a rich sense of belonging. Isolation and disconnection have been shown to be more dangerous to our physical health and longevity than smoking more than 20 a day or a heavy drinking habit.  It is a leading contributory factor to chronic stress being able to run rampant. Numerous researchers have shown this. Brene Brown writes about it in Braving the Wilderness and The Power of Vulnerability.

Connection is vital to our physical health and mental health- it reduces stress, the propensity for chronic stress in particular which is very associated with feeling isolated and disconnected. Connection plays an important part in protecting the ends of our DNA strands (telomeres) from fraying and eroding the integrity of our makeup on a cellular level – leaving us vulnerable to the early onset of disease, aging and early death.
The strength of our attachments – to our primary caregivers & family initially; to friends as we grow (especially in the teens); to our partners; to a sense of community and belonging in the workplace and wider world, give us perspective and reduce stress. Being able to look someone in the eye and have their face & demeanour meet our emotional tone and intensity in an empathic way, measurably reduces our cortisol levels. These aspects, when consistently experienced, increase a sense of safety and security in ourselves on a fundamental level – that we are seen, that we matter, that we can be soothed and find solace. These aspects can also give meaning and context to our lives – connecting with a sense of purpose and fulfilment. In the words of the L’Oréal advert – we feel that we are ‘worth it’, that we matter. 

Focus – parents
This edition is going to focus on loneliness and the loss of lived and live experiences of friendship – from the point of view of the children and pupils in our lives. Why it matters, and what can be done to support them through this time of imposed isolation. This may be something that has been live in the experiences of our child prior to lock-down, or may be something emerging during it.  
Focus – teachers
For teachers, at some stage, you will be working with children and teens who feel profoundly isolated from their peers, and it will profoundly affect the way that they show up in school. So althoughthe context of the article is thinking about the influence and impact of social isolation right now – many aspects will be able to be applied in supporting young people through loneliness at school.

Alongside my other work on mental health and psychological wellbeing in schools and in family life, the topic I am most often asked to speak on is around friendships, group life, toxic friendships and toxic groups. Both for pupils in their PSHCE programme, and for parents. Because of course, in the hurly burly of school life, there is lots of action here. From 8+ the social and emotional development of young people becomes more complex and political. From 11+-14/15, the drive to be popular, and to belong in popular groups can mean young people compromise their values, their sense of what is truly likeable, and confuse popularity with social power (Professor Mitch Prinstein). And there will be many right now, who are perhaps benefiting from having a break from the intensity of all that…
Interestingly enough, I am never asked to speak on loneliness. Which is a common – and universal experience at least at some point in all our lives. Perhaps this is linked with how taboo loneliness and confessing to loneliness can be in our hyper-connected, and popularity-driven work.

As a largely self-employed person, whenever I am asked how things are going, saying ‘busy’ always seems to chime with people as a positive…when actually I thrive on having quality experiences of quality alone-ness (right now in short supply!). I am, however, quite often called on to coach young people who are lonely and suffering from social anxiety. So I will be drawing on both those aspects of my work – the big group-work I do on friendship, and the one-to-one work on belonging.

Family life in lockdown
For us, like many families, we are having days where things flow and pass without incident. We soothe ourselves with nice food, and we are good to each other. We’ve been playing games, backgammon, chess, monopoly (the latter grudgingly! I always lose!)…we’ve annoyed funny episodes on TV…There are other days where the veneer cracks and we show the irritation, the frustration, worry and vulnerability that lie beneath the progression though school-work and work tasks, the household chores, the forced exercise.
Initially when the school closure was announced, it was a shock akin to a sudden bereavement for our daughter. And in the first few days, she openly mourned the lack of interaction and contact with friends. It was almost immediately soothed and ‘solved’ by a frantic regime of Zoom / WhatsApp calls…these subsided somewhat over the Easter break as we were able to give more time and ingenuity to being present for each other. Now school has resumed and we are back in the trenches of long division and converting measurements – and the routine is working better than before. We are tooled up with desk, files, ipad…In many ways it felt we were being accustomed to life in lockdown…’winning’ 
Exactly as with the visceral experiences of bereavement, however, the sense of loss, or pain and of fear, has the capacity to hit and hit hard and remind us that beneath the surface of order, lies a rawer lived experience in our children. Yesterday, it emerged whilst playing a new collaborative game called ‘Pandemic’…Yeah. I know. Too close to home. But cathartic. Amid the tears, the feeling sick, the desire to play and please mixed with the acknowledgment of fear, came the forceful articulation of anger. 
And yes, it may well be pointless to be angry. But those feelings are strong, and real, and valid. Because without the social life or busyness of school, our kids are left with their work, a more tranquil and contained regime, and their thoughts and fears. It can’t all be creativity and action…learning new languages, taking their music practice to a new level, mastery, mastery, mastery… 
For a parent, seeing our child truly bereft was so hard. Sad, angry, lost, struggling with thoughts and fears crowding her mind whilst her guard is down. Providing some balance between hugging and holding her, and letting her scream and cry – allowing those feelings to be – was one of the hardest things to do. Because like her, I want this to stop. I want to return to happy times. But in the same way that friendship issues are so hard for parents – we can’t make friends for our kids, we can’t force other kids to be nice – we are powerless in the face of this situation. 
Supportive carers – teachers working with pupils who are isolated, shy or unhappy outsiders…
The same is true for teachers as well. We may be tasked by Heads of Year, or parents to try to support a lonely child to find a sense of belonging – or at least make less uncomfortable the constant pressures to be in a group. And we can be kind, we can observe and advise, but connection cannot be forced. It ensues from nebulous, intangible patterns of behaviour. And it dissipates easily through self sabotaging behaviours loss of confidence, defensiveness, and neediness that loneliness can usher in. 
So whether we are parents supporting our kids now – whose expressiveness around the impact of social restriction may be overt, or hard to discern – or parents and teachers in the future, looking at supporting young people when the lockdown lifts….how can we be facilitating around the processing of difficult feelings? And help guide our lovely little -and big ones- to be ready to make a stand and set them up for valuing and making quality connections in the future?

Working with loneliness in young people – some thoughts.

  1. Silver lining the situation won’t help – though it’s easily done. It makes US feel more comfortable (teachers, parents). No – it’s unlikely they will always be lonely. It is likely that these feelings will pass. But we may well be teaching them to ‘white-knuckle’ through their discomfort, rather than really process the difficult feelings if we don’t do due diligence and try to meet them where they are really at with their feelings. 
  2. Distracting them from their feelings will help on a temporary basis – but we need to be really careful how we do this. If we offer hedonic solace, what might we be teaching…to comfort eat, drink, shop our way out of the blues? If we try to crowd out their loneliness by being their all to them, are we stepping out of our role? What important work on their part might we be preventing in stopping up the gap for them? 
  3. Helping them feel felt, means being able to be present for them to experience fully the feelings of loneliness, to express them and acknowledge them – both inwardly and – very importantly – outwardly by verbalising them or expressing them to us. And we can be resourceful in helping facilitate that expression. If they can’t explain in words, can they draw or make marks that would express the feeling? Can they play some music representative of where they are at? Can they show how they feel this in their bodies, how they wear their emotional pain? Being there for them, to help them externalise those feelings in a safe and supportive environment is so helpful in reducing the pressure of those feelings…it’s like moving the lid on a shaken bottle of coke. It starts to declutter the mind of the emotional mess being held within – it can be seen, it can be named, it can be tamed.
  4. Bearing witness to their grief is powerful. These feelings are painful – but they are true. It’s part of who this young person really is right now. It brings us into more authentic connection. It shows them that despite our own stresses and strains, and despite our wishes for their happiness and success – in face BECAUSE of our love and care for them, we CAN bear it. WE can – and will love them, no matter how bad they are feeling inside. Difficult feelings have a primary and secondary burden. The first is the pain of the feeling itself. The secondary fear is that no one will understand or be able to see us the same again once we let out our vulnerabilities. 
  5. Not shutting down those feelings prematurely takes courage – but it’s an investment. And it comes back to the magical thinking that we all have about being a supportive carer in the life of a child. We all love to think that we can solve their problems, and make it better. Vocationally as a teacher, that’s what we want. Habitually as a parent, that’s what we can mistakenly feel is our job! We might have been able to make things better when they were babies and toddlers – but increasingly we have to face the fact that we can’t make other people happy. Would that we could. We DO have to help give them the tools to find happiness and peace for themselves.  There is a difference between wallowing in difficult feelings, retriggering them and working through them – and I am not talking about holding them down in the horrible feelings. Understanding the impact of those feelings is a great exploration. Professor Rick Hanson, in his book, Resilient, speaks of a 3 part process…Let the hard feelings BE, let them GO, and decide what you want to let IN in their place. The important thing to bear in mind is you can’t let the difficult feelings go without allowing them to be first. What we suppress, stays with us.
  6. Clarifying the nature of the pain and its impact is now an important route to coming to a point of choice. What would life be like if this pain was lessened, different, removed? Grow the vision of what they would like to aim for instead. Make it something that can be visualised richly, fully. 
  7. What steps can they take to make a start? What would be more ambitious, and get them further down that line? When we are lonely, we feel starved of social connection. We wire ourselves in to that thought that we are alone, we are lonely.  Our threat circuitry creates a potent narrative around it and keeps it on the agenda. Functional equivalence means we feel imagined threats (I’ll never have friends again) as potently as real ones. Before we know it, our thinking is biased to find confirmation of our bereft state. So looking at this period as being akin to being in the desert, without access to water…every little drop of water/connection needs to be made to count. We can start with immediate family and the wider family circle…and move out from there. Where are the positive interactions, where they have really felt some connection? Here’s where we need to do some savouring, to make the good stuff stick (Prof Martin Seligman, Authentic Happinesss). What was that like? How did it feel? What did they do? What values are coming out in that connection? What is so important about those values?
  8. Normalise the experience of being lonely. Loneliness is a universal experience. Everyone feels it at some point – and there are many points in life where we are vulnerable to those feelings – especially in adolescence and in old age. We can feel lonely even when we are surrounded by people. It is all to do with the quality of those relationships, and their reciprocal and authentic qualities. In many strands of research about friendship in adult life, the average number of people respondents feel they are close to and can talk to is between 3 and 5. This low number means, of course, that quite a number of adults feel they don’t have anyone they can talk to. We can’t handle huge numbers of friends. WE might be sociable creatures, but this has a limit. Dunbar’s number of 150 people being the maximum that we can ‘know’ in any meaningful way narrows down to an inner ring of 50 people we know / see regularly but don’t count as friends, down to 15 people who matter – mentors, relatives, friends who mean a lot but don’t quite make it to the inner circle. We are in the centre of that inner circle of 3-5 trusted, close personal relationships. Our dear friends. And of course when we feel cut off from our inner circle, that it is diminished or becomes unreliable through change, that can, and will naturally feel painful. But it’s a pain we can learn to bear, listen to the messages from it and it is most certainly something we can take action on. ANd it’s the acting on it that is what will make the difference. Even in these restricted times, there are things we can do to dial up a real sense of connection.
  9. Group life and popularity often isn’t what its cracked up to be. There will be several people around them at school who are not happy in their groupings. Things often seem fixed in best friends and tight friendship groups- but they are not.  Often young people, especially teens, are highly influenced by the notion of popularity – having lots of friends, being part of a large group. Success in being part of these groups often does come at a price. The price of having to fit in in order to belong, to put up with rivalrous behaviour – who is the cleverest, the funniest, the one on the inner track…and feeling the need to do quite a lot of emotional labour in order to keep up with it. Emotional labour is the stress of having to compromise on your values, or what you really want as part of the group dynamic, in order to keep your place or to keep the status quo. 
  10. There is relatively little intersection between popularity, and like ability. Researchers have found that in the teen years, only 30% of those young people who are defined as being the most popular, are also likeable. And that number is less when looking at teenaged girls. This is because in the early teens, the biological urge to separate from parents and be part of a teenage tribe, means a lot of behaviour is status-driven rather than likeable. Genuinely open, inviting, generous, helping others feel likeable and involved. Focusing on the qualities of what makes people likeable helps make better selections when experimenting and reaching out to potential friends. 
  11. What is the value of being alone? What are they seeing, and learning about themselves, about what they want from life? About what nurtures them, and depletes them in their relationships? About what they want from their friends? This time away from the hurly burly of group life is a great opportunity for them to find their ‘True North’ – what their goals, wants, and needs are – as opposed the ‘magnetic North’ which is what the herd tells you you should want, need, and have. 
  12. Widen the circle – look at opportunities to make connections outside the family – where do they feel more belonging and connection – shared talents, shared interests? Who do they feel is more reliable in their lives – to be a more receptive starting point for them to make, build, and grow connections? Who is genuinely likeable as opposed to popular? What is it about them? What does likeable mean? How does that link to the values they’ve identified earlier, thinking about what’s going well with people they are close to?
  13. Look at ways to connect. And don’t assume that Zoom is the only way. Right now with all the constraints of the lockdown, virtual connections are definitely helpful – but someone whose confidence is low needs help with thinking about how to make a good conversation, how to involve play, playful questions and avenues in conversation, how to show interest and make the other person feel their views are valued. It’s hard to be a good listener when you are worried about saying the wrong thing. Laughter is hugely bonding, what things have they seen or experienced that could invite shared laughter?…Zooming, screen time to connect, social media, they are part of the picture. But they aren’t great. A good zoom call slips away into the rear-view mirror, a bad one stays present in the mind with regrets writ large. There’s often a time lapse between the speech and the visual which makes it easier to Mis-take cues to speak. Think about the lasting connections that can be built with letter-writing, sending pictures, photos, found objects. A zoom call, snapchat or tiktok is something, it can be quite ephemeral, though…but there is another connection more concrete, more tangible, from the theatre of receiving a hand-written, personalised note. Starting with cousins, family friends, pen pals, old friends who have moved away…later moving in to selecting productive avenues with friends and contacts from activities and peer groups at school. 
  14. Other connections with others can also be made – finding ways to be of service to others, cheering them up, leaving empowering messages on stones, in bottles, for others to find. Showing that you care and sending out love isn’t actually too different from receiving it. Messages of appreciation to key workers, fund raising activities, these are ways of showing and exercising those likeable qualities. Awareness and interest in other people, reading out, being generous and appreciative – building those muscles during lockdown, and being seen and supported by family, all those aspects add to your child’s inner working model – that they are good, they are kind, they are loved and lovable. That in time, practice, and with discernment, they will be able to build meaningful friendships with the right people

Loneliness is difficult. It is painful. But it does not have to be defining. Moving from feeling lonely, to being able to face being alone and learn from being alone into more productive relationships slowly but surely is a space we are able to hold with them over this lockdown period, so that our children are in a strong position for growth – of themselves, and their friendships – both now in lockdown -and beyond when group life resumes.
The key is to recognise the messages from those feelings of loneliness, process them, and move towards taking action. To savour the connections we do have more deeply by focusing more on them than on our deficit narrative and building from there. 
We can remind ourselves, and help our children know, that everyone suffers. It’s totally normal. They are not the only ones – and then at least, they might not feel so alone in their loneliness. 
I hope this may go some way in supporting you to work with the inevitable stresses, strains and anxieties that are going to be part ofthe work of the coming weeks and months.Next week’s edition will be focusing on friendships and group life during lockdown – let me know what the challenges are that you are seeing in the experiences of your children / teens in their perforce online social lives right now…If you are a teacher and pastoral leader, let me know what challenges are emerging in your school community and I will write with a focus on how schools and parents can help…If you are interested in coaching to help support your child with loneliness, or social anxieties – get in touch for an initial consultation.As always, if this article has resonated, and you know someone else – friends or family who could benefit, please forward them a link and signpost to my website to subscribe. With love and gratitude,Emma Gleadhill. 

More to explore