What children and adolescents say about loneliness Research findings from the 'Tell Me about Loneliness' project

What is loneliness?

We have been asking young people what they think loneliness is.

According to researchers, loneliness is an unpleasant experience that most people will experience at some point in their life. It occurs when someone feels like their relationships (e.g. with their friends, classmates, teachers, or parents) are lacking in some way.

You might experience loneliness if you do not have someone you can share secrets with. Or you might experience loneliness if you feel like you do not have enough people to hang out with. Experiencing loneliness is thought to encourage us to seek social connection.

Research for many decades has used a definition of loneliness that was generated from discussions with adults. We wanted to know if kids think about loneliness in the same way as adults? Does it involve the same negative emotions? Is it caused by the same things?

The 'Tell Us About Loneliness' project

The 'Tell Us About Loneliness' project is managed by Lily Verity. It focuses on what loneliness means to young people, aged 8 – 12 years. Interviews were conducted with young people from Belgium and Italy to ask them about what they thought loneliness was, whether they recognised there to be two distinct types of loneliness (social and emotional) and what coping strategies they think would help young people, and those around them, cope with loneliness.

We analysed the interviews using “Thematic Framework Analysis” (TFA), a type of qualitative analysis that produces “themes” that explain the salient issues identified in the interview data.

What did young people tell us about loneliness?

Being physically isolated was not seen to be the cause of loneliness; whilst young people recognised that being alone could contribute to feelings of loneliness, they reported that they thought someone could feel lonely even in the presence of friends.

“well feeling lonely can be… you think that nobody wants you for some reason, but instead there are a lot of people who want you, even if you tend to be alone”

Young people in the study thought that someone who is lonely might think more negatively than someone who is not feeling lonely. For example, when we see two people laughing together it would seem that they are having fun together. However, someone who is experiencing loneliness and is in a negative mindset may believe that these people are laughing at them.

“I think she’s [someone feeling lonely] going to be sad and thinks no one likes her and that no one can help her, or him”

They thought that people might feel lonely when they were excluded by their friends or peers.

“[they feel lonely when] others exclude them, let’s say from the group, the games, like if I talk to you, I exclude another girl, she feels lonely”

Or when they did not have close relationships with others.

“it’s not having anyone, not having support, not having a person to rely on”.

How do young people cope with loneliness?

In one of our other projects, we examined transcripts from Childline UK where young people had spoken to counsellors about their experiences of loneliness. Their discussions of their experiences indicated that they struggled with knowing how to cope with experiences of loneliness, and tended to favour short term coping strategies that acted to distract them from, rather than alleviate, loneliness.

For the interviews for the ‘Tell Me about Loneliness’, young people told us the coping strategies that they would suggest for helping someone who was experiencing loneliness to overcome it.

Here is what they told us ...

Someone who is feeling lonely might benefit from reaching out to others and making more of an effort to join in with their games.

“try to make friends, talk to them, invite them, take initiative”.

“try to always be yourself (…) try to open up a little bit more, but not too much because if not afterwards maybe you can seem too exuberant or too impulsive and… not too much or too little, that’s the middle ground”

They suggested findings ways to express your feelings, that did not necessarily involve another person being present.

“could talk to a family member or vent through a diary, i.e. write down things she thinks”

“and then just talk to yourself during your walk or something, express your feelings”

They also suggested how those around someone experiencing loneliness might help them to feel better. Peers can help by approaching the person feeling lonely, and asking them to join in.

“yes, go and talk to them, and say that that person can join you and just sit with you and stuff”

Teachers can help by encouraging socialisation during school times.

“yes, I think if the person in the classroom sees that someone is alone or something that he will then put that person with other people, such as working more often in groups so that that person can also make friends”

Parents, or close family members can help by acting as a confidant, and providing comfort.

“I think especially as a parent of a child and when you know that your child feels lonely you really pay attention so that he or she doesn’t feel lonely at home. By giving them a lot of attention or by doing fun things. And also have a chat, talk with them”

Resources for those Working with Children and Adolescents

We have worked with others to produce materials for (1) those working with children and adolescents who are either worried about the potential rise in loneliness because of the COVID-19 social restrictions, including school closures, or (2) live or work with a young person(s) reporting loneliness.

Our Research Team

Lily Verity is a PhD student at The University of Manchester. She is conducting interviews and focus groups with young people in the 'Tell me about loneliness' and 'Fit2Belong' projects, so we have a clear idea of what loneliness means to young people across different countries. Those findings will feed into the development of teaching and learning materials developed by project partners. Lily received a BSc (hons.) in Forensic Psychology from the University of Central Lancashire and an MSc Research Methods (with Education) at the University of Manchester. Lily’s research interests centre around mental health in young people. She is currently in the second year of her PhD which investigates experiences of loneliness in childhood and adolescents, including how children and adolescents cope with loneliness.

Lily previously worked as a research assistant on several projects including one that examined mental health screening in cystic fibrosis centres across Europe, and another that identified effective evidence-based social and emotional learning strategies for teachers and schools.

Tine Schellekens received a grant for fundamental interdisciplinary research from KU Leuven in January 2018, after joining the Meaning Research in Late Life team of Professor Dezutter at KU Leuven in August 2017. Previously, she had worked for over a decade as a clinical psychologist and therapist in a Multifunctional Centre for children, adolescents and families with severe emotional and behavioral problems. She is specialized in psychodynamic psychotherapy (Postgraduate KU Leuven, 2016) and systemic counseling (Kern, 2014). She combines her PhD Research with a private therapeutic practice (Psychodroom, Limburg) and being a guest lecturer/researcher at the UCLL (Hasselt). She obtained her master’s degree in Clinical and Health Psychology from KU Leuven in July 2004.

Tine Adam is a masters student in Educational Sciences at KU Leuven in Belgium. As part of her masters thesis she participated in the ‘Tell me about loneliness' research project. She conducted interviews with young children and analysed their responses in coordination with the other researchers. Mental health has always been an area of interest of hers, so she chose to study the effect of loneliness on children. Besides that, she loves working with children and adolescents. This project helped children express their thoughts on loneliness and integrates their voices into scientific literature.

Floor Sillis is a masters student in Clinical Psychology at KU Leuven in Belgium. As part of her masters thesis, she participated in the ‘Tell me about loneliness' research project. Her experience with children and adolescents stems mostly from five years of leadership in her local scouts group. This experience helped her connect with the adolescents she interviewed for the project. As a part of the team, she also contributed to the analysis of the obtained data. Floor is currently doing her internship in an ambulatory mental health centre for children and adolescents with various questions and concerns. This experience emphasizes the role loneliness plays in the lives of children and adolescents, especially during a global pandemic.

Marlies Maes is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Youth Studies (Utrecht University) and at the Department of School Psychology and Development in Context (KU Leuven, FWO). Her main research focus is on loneliness among youth. In her work, Dr. Maes has focused on the experience of different types of loneliness and on the measurement of loneliness. In addition, she conducted several systematic reviews on, amongst others, loneliness in youth with a chronic physical illness, on gender differences in loneliness, and on the associations, both within and across time, between loneliness and social anxiety symptoms.

Marinella Majorano is an Associate Professor of Developmental and Educational Psychology. Her research programme focuses on the role played by the family and by educational and cultural factors in the development of language, communication and social skills in typically developing children and in children with language and communication difficulties; she explores how those factors impact the child’s literacy development in the primary school. Dr. Majorano is also interested in developing and implementing intervention programs for parents, educators and teachers that promote inclusion and well-being. Two of her applied research projects were funded by educational services and she has received three grants. Her work is published in several national and international journals and she collaborates continuously with several international partners.

Pamela Qualter is a Professor of Psychology for Education who has researched loneliness among youth for the past 25 years. In her work, she has explored the causes and consequences of loneliness, and examined individual differences in the prospective profile of loneliness across the lifespan. Prof. Qualter collaborated with Profs. Manuela and Christina Victor the BBC Loneliness Experiment, the world’s largest survey of loneliness. In the Radio 4 series ‘Anatomy of Loneliness’, she offered expertise on age differences in the experience of loneliness, and discussed how there are key transition points during adolescence and young adulthood that increase vulnerability to loneliness.

This material should be treated as private and confidential. © The University of Manchester, 2020 all rights reserved.

Created By
Pamela Qualter Manchester Institute of Education


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