How to Help a Child Struggling with Loneliness :: Conclusion to the Lonely Kids Series

Lonely Kids Conclusion 3

I was lonely as a child, and that’s why I have compassion for lonely kids. I hid my loneliness mostly because I didn’t know how to articulate it. My bad feelings about myself, my free time, my lack of support, and lack of understanding relationships came out in dramatic behavior.

This was all by age 7. Even younger than that, I remember thinking: If I were gone, no one would notice.

I wasn’t lonely for a lack of people. I went to a brick and mortar school with lots of classmates and adults buzzing around.

The danger of loneliness is that it is subtle. It’s the difference between doing together and being together. As I modeled what I thought was the right way to behave and make friends, I sunk deeper into just doing my life.

Fast forward to my daughter turning 7, and I started to recognize some of the same old symptoms of loneliness in her. Seeing this in her, I was propelled into an all-out campaign to help her and other kids too.

Lonely Kids Conclusion 2

In my effort to help and teach my daughter to see her bad behavior and the bad feelings behind them, I saw her emotional state get worse.

I think we’re all (even the youngest ones) too quick to pick up false guilt.

Since that isn’t what I wanted to happen, I had to get perspective and start over. I committed to support her in the journey of learning who she can become. I’m taking the long view; not ignoring her bad behavior but setting it into context. Character, talents, interests, and influences all impact behavior.

When I was a child, there wasn’t enough time to pursue my interests. I wasn’t given the opportunity to let my talents emerge and grow. Not knowing my own interests led me to feel useless, and that isn’t what I want for my kids. As their mother, and specifically as a homeschooling mother, I am given new opportunities to support my kids in their character, talents, and interests every day. I have the greatest influence on them.

Having an intentional influence on them is a matter of vision. Short term sees bad behavior and just wants to make it change. Long term sees the roots and patiently tends to the heart of the behavior.

Lonely Kids Conclusion 1

Here are 4 focal points for learning how to see the roots and provide kids with support:

  1. Identity: Knowing who I am helps me know how I need to be supported. Who am I? Who am I becoming? Who do I belong to? Who wants me? What do I allow to label me? What are my strengths? What are my weaknesses? Identity is a standing stone. It is something to cling to when no one else is around to support or provide companionship. If I show my children that I have a strong sense of identity then they are one step closer to feeling the confidence of knowing their own identity.
  2. Advocacy: Finding a companion isn’t a matter of convenience, rather it’s a commitment. How willing am I to work on behalf of my child to bring other people into their life? Not only do children need healthy peer relationships, but they also need mentors and older kids to look up to too. Where are these people? What are my child’s interests and how can I coordinate people with these activities to better strengthen my child’s confidence? When I think of being my child’s advocate, I picture myself as a manager of their emotional needs. Taking inventory of fun, creativity, outdoor and indoor activities, curiosity, healthy excitement, down time, etc. and balancing it all. Not perfectly but intentionally.
  3. Modeling: Prioritizing healthy relationships with others that provide me with the support and companionship that I need. No one out grows the need for friends. When I’m lonely and unsupported, my kids see it and they suffer too. I want my kids to see me committed to others, and willing to sacrifice for the sake of understanding and loving other people. Aren’t kids always just practicing adults? I want to give my kids a good example of what to practice.
  4. Family Bonds: Being together and knowing love is a vital need for all of us. We are designed to thrive in supportive relationships. Creating a healthy home community starts with encouragement. Words, time, attention, concern, physical touch, traditions, etc. these are all the currency we have to spend on our children in ensuring they enjoy a rich family life. A life of being together on purpose.

As my kids grow older, I’ve realized they also grow less dependent on me to meet their social needs. Rather they need me to be their mentor, providing opportunities for friendships and bonds to flourish on top of their solid foundation of identity and belonging. They need help in order to recognize what being feels like for them.

Loneliness doesn’t have to be a life-long battle. Let’s break the cycle and step in to help.

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My Loneliness Story (Self-Destructing and Frustrated) :: Warning Signs of Loneliness in Kids, Part 6

No one would want to play with me anyway. I don’t have any friends. No one likes me, I’m dumb.

Or:

Why do you always… why can’t I ever… you never let me…

And it may be that both have been said by the same child. I know I said both.

People mean well when they want to help or fix these bad feelings. But it isn’t as easy as choosing not to be grumpy by putting on a smile. When the root of the matter isn’t being addressed the bad feelings grow and it becomes a habit. The struggling child expresses self-pity or disrespect consistently.

It is heartbreaking when adults ignore these signs because they label the child as “pitying themselves” or “rebelling against authority.” While both of those labels may be true and trained through with the child –it is feedback behavior.

Again, heavily focusing on these words and the feelings behind them are not going to produce the desired result. The words or the attitude isn’t the primary issue. The root of the issue isn’t that the child needs better self-esteem or deeper submission. Spending energy trying to train a child to put on a better attitude or to quiet their expressions will not stick. It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a wound that needs stitches.

The pain from loneliness has been internalized and the child believes that they are wrong or broken for having needs that are going unmet. It causes a reaction of distrust and resentment toward parents for not knowing or helping the child.

In young children, this can also create a sense of panic or fear.

Fear and pain have a way of motivating us. I was a little powerhouse of words, attitudes, and emotions growing up. I would speak up to anyone: anytime, anywhere. Collecting labels that only grew more burdensome as I grew older. As my feedback behavior was being disciplined, punished, quieted – the pain grew and my fight with it. I tried every wrong way to force others to notice me and meet my needs for support and companionship, but very few adults could tolerate me.

This was true for me: hurt people, hurt people. And anyone close to me was hurt by me.

If only I could go back to my teen years and take back the awful things I said to my parents. The ongoing frustration I felt toward them was simply caused by misunderstandings and lack of communication. We addressed the surface issues, labeling actions and emotions as character flaws. But on my own, I didn’t have the tools to change my character – who I was becoming felt like a freight train that had lost its brakes.

Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, I became who we all feared I would become. The labels and the troubles crushed me.

It took me years to unravel the pain and fear. After the social stages of schooling, I was on my own and alone, and that’s when I began to understand how loneliness had been at the root of so much of my destructive behavior.

And after more than a decade of healing I am able to share and learn from this painful part of myself.

My Loneliness Story

Learning to work through pain and to help others is the motive behind writing this series. The amount of compassion I have for kids who are hurting is beyond my physical reach. That’s why I’m writing. If you’re reading this, anything you can gain from these observations can be used to heal and help provide support and companionship.

Also, lest I close the series leading anyone to believe I no longer struggle with loneliness allow me to reveal how I recognize red flags as an adult: I act is some counter intuitive ways. I put on personalities that aren’t mine, and they don’t fit. And it looks like one or more of these:

  • Suddenly becoming bubbly and outgoing, with a strong desire to be the life of the party
  • Spending money impulsively and a ravenous desire to have something I’ve been saying “no” to for a long time
  • Gradually becoming isolated: ignoring phone calls from close friends and family because I just don’t feel like being with anyone
  • Feeling panicky when I don’t know where my phone is – checking social media compulsively
  • Mismanaging time and emotions – becoming angry and frustrated with myself for an overall lack of discipline
  • Speaking negatively about myself to others and rejecting encouragement

Why is there an ongoing struggle with loneliness? Because it’s hard to ask for support when I feel unsupported. It looks weak, it feels vulnerable, and it requires reflection and work to resolve. Often, I don’t know where to start, I’m overwhelmed. Guilt lies to me.

Moving forward, I look at my core needs and work up from there: security, identity, and then belonging. And like Dr. Kathy Koch taught me: Belonging is “who wants me” not “who needs me.” Belonging is a need, and healthy relationships are possible.

If you’ve missed any of the other posts in this series, you can check out the titles here.

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Assigning New Friends as “Best” Friends :: Warning Signs of Loneliness in Kids, Part 5

Joe under horse

When my daughter was little, going to the park was never about playing on the swings or sliding down the slide – it was always: who she would play with.

Who will be there? My daughter would beg.

I don’t know, you’ll have to wait and see. You can always make a new friend. I would reassure.

Her little extroverted side would shine in this setting. She was not shy to pick a girl about her size and introduce herself and ask: Do you want to play?

On our way home from the park, she would ask me about her new “best” friend – when will I see her again? Can we have her over to our house? Her excitement from gaining a new friend was bittersweet. I felt so bad when I would have to say, I don’t know her parents. We don’t know their phone number. You may never see her again.

She was always eager to give the “best” of herself to someone new.

Telling her over and over that she may never see that new friend again hurt her, and eventually it taught her to hold back. The hurt didn’t change her from outgoing to shy, but it stole her joy. She started to recognize the loss from giving herself was greater than the gain of a new “best” friend that she would never see again.

As she grew up, I noticed a slight change in her attitude toward making new friends. She was still eager to play, but less excited about finding a new friend. The questions turned to friends she knows are in her life on purpose. After leaving the park, she would ask: when will I see my cousins again? When will we play with friends from church?

One day after watching her play with “new” friends, I saw her tire of it. She came over and sat down next to me and said that she didn’t want to play anymore. This is when I realized that the whole time she had been questioning about these friends, she wasn’t angling for a large quantity of friends – she had been sizing up the quality of her friendships. The time and energy necessary to play well was being given to people she would never see again, and she didn’t like that thought. She wanted to invest herself, she wanted to build something bigger than just a one-time-deal.

She wanted companionship.

Joe and Graham at Butterfly Garden

After seeing this change in her, I knew it was on me to find the solution.

She was lonely, and the solution was going to cost me more than just a quick trip to the park. I would have to find a way to build consistent relationships into our routine. Being a homeschool family means we have the freedom and responsibility to socialize on our own terms. It means we rely on each other to learn and discover how to make lasting friendships.

And not too long ago, I came to the realization that I didn’t know how to do this for myself.

So I’ve put myself on the same path to friendships as my daughter. We talk about it often. How can we be a good friend? Who are the people that we want to know better? How can we balance planning for established friendships and inventing new ones?

Am I modeling this commitment to relationships?

I want our home to be a safe place for my children to let their emotions show. For that to be true all the time, I have to be willing to encourage their excitement at appropriate times and in appropriate ways. This goes back to the root of loneliness: the need for support and companionship. And the first place a child will have this need met is at home. So am I happy to see my kids? Do I smile when receiving them? Showing feeling and even excitement to be with them will build a good foundation for understanding what being a good friend is supposed to be like.

I don’t have to be my daughter’s best friend, but I can show her what one looks like.

Need to catch up on this series? Find links to Parts 1-4 here.

Over Attachment to Media :: Warning Signs of Loneliness in Kids, Part 2

What came first: the chicken or the egg?

This seems to be the question that comes to my mind when I think about loneliness and the use of media. I don’t believe that all who use media in their homes as a means of connection, entertainment, or knowledge of the world will wind up lonely as a result.

So instead of writing philosophically on the topic, allow me tell you my story.

As far back as I can remember, I was fascinated with people. Relationships, conversation, behavior – all of it. And one thing TV shows provide is a pretend window into the lives of other people. It allows for a type of role play. In all of my free time, I would choose to engage in any television show in order to curb my appetite for understanding humanity. Constantly pushing the boundaries that my parents put on me, I wanted to watch shows too mature for my age.

At a young age, in elementary, I started practicing the scripts. Setting my mind to learn the dance of dialog, I would practice these speeches with any listening ear. With some I became popular, but with most I was just plain weird. I didn’t have many true friends. I didn’t have many interests or hobbies outside of watching TV. My life was full of people, but empty of life.

I was bored. I tuned in with hopes of filling up that need to do something, and it only robbed me of my time. The more I watched, the more the emptiness inside grew. As the emptiness grew, so did my loneliness, and the need to fill this gap was demanding. I could only quiet the demand with another show. (Also, the commercials were feeding another demand. The discontent I felt with my emotional life was nothing compared to the discontent I felt about my physical life.)

What I didn’t realize until my late teens was that scripts aren’t real life. I prided myself on how well I knew all the characters in all the shows, I even idolized the people on “reality shows” because I thought they had somehow made their fascination with television reality and found the secret door into the other side of the screen.

Even talking about shows with “friends” at school fooled me into thinking I wasn’t harming myself in any way. But what we had was really just fan clubs, not true companionship.

And that’s the need. Loneliness is being in a state of aloneness that lacks companionship or support.

The TV had lured me in with its people, characters, exotic places, and luxuries, promising to fill my need for purpose and connection. I’ve always been an introvert so this felt like a win, win. But in the end, I felt disconnected and depressed. These negative feelings steam rolled into my twenties and as I grew in responsibility, my ravenous need for companionship and support grew but the ability for shows and characters to provide diminished.

Finally, God intervened. I was alone for what felt like the millionth time, watching a game show that I could not have cared less about, filling my evening with nonsense, and He spoke to me. “Get rid of it.”

I turned it off, and sat in the silence. I was a little afraid of what the cost of “getting rid of it” would be. Not only to me, but for my 2 children. They were 3- and 1.5-years old at the time. Using Praise Baby or Dora to take a shower was classified as a NEED in my life.

But I obeyed. I unplugged the beast and put it in a closet.

In the silence, I found the peace and companionship I was longing for. I felt satisfied for the first time in my life.

I thought about the friendships in my life and the little effort I had put into them. The ones I had were mostly because of convenience to me. I could see lots of effort on their part, and the realization became clear that from the earliest age I hadn’t been taught to “make friends.”

It’s never too late to learn, I thought. It’s time to make up for what was lost.

And so I began investing in relationships starting with the ones closest to me. Little by little, I began to see growth in the amount of love that came from within me. It wasn’t by my design. I know the One who is to credit for my freedom and healing.

My story concludes on a happy note, but what about all the kids growing up in this digital generation? Are they going to be taught how to make friends in the real world? Are their connections with friends more like a fan club with the only exchange between them words about the video game levels or what the hero accomplished in the episode this week?

Can they handle their emotions when everything is silent? Can I?

I want to answer these questions and address the part of my story that includes facebook and loneliness in the future post on coping mechanisms and destructive relationships. Stay tuned.

Aggressive Excitement :: Warning Signs of Loneliness in Kids, Part 1

Are kids that are homeschooled predisposed to be lonely? Have I destined my kids to either be excessively shy or obnoxiously excited?

Socialize,” they say. “Allow children to play in a group of their peers,” authorities preach.

It seems like there is almost a mandate against children being at home with just their family because this goes against the current popular thought.

We are given pamphlets and handouts at the doctor’s office to mark our child’s milestones. They tell us to be sure to have them on schedule for all of their developmental needs. So it’s natural to start thinking of a child’s needs as a checklist:

  • Development
  • Socialization
  • Academics
  • Food and Shelter
  • Faith and Family
  • Exercise and Activities

Planned. Organized. In the box. But is that truly how anyone feels cared for?

The first warning sign of loneliness in kids isn’t an “alone” behavior. It’s actually seen clearly when a child is about to be in a group. Aggressive excitement.

Before I even begin to explain my thought here, I want to say I’m all about excitement. Or at least I’m trying to be. I have been relearning how to be carried away by the good feelings that being alive brings. Excitement is a good thing.

And it is a very good thing for children to express their excitement.

So what is “aggressive excitement”?

It is when a person uses their excitement to forcefully get others’ attention. It can also be a false excitement. When a person covers up insecurity with aggressive positivity.

And let me be frank, this behavior in kids can be frustratingly annoying. These kids are usually not “rule followers” and they don’t seem easily contained.  It can feel like the only solution for this almost-out-of-control excitement is to give them over to their peers and retreat as quickly as possible.

So how does this behavior show signs of loneliness?

They appear hyper, happy, and eager to be with others. This is the kid who does not seem to be lonely at all. The concern is that these little people are desperate to have their inner need for identity met within a 1 hour social engagement. The let down from any activity leaves them feeling drained and even depressed. Consequently, they have learned to put on this aggression in an attempt to force the engagement fill their need.

Often there are multiple emotional needs not being met in a child who becomes aggressively happy. This magnification of positive feelings reveals that this child has a lot of missing positive feelings and therefore they are trying to “make up for” what they lack.

Possible missing emotional needs are: security, identity, belonging, and responsibility.

What can I do to help a child who acts this way?

First, don’t retreat and don’t avoid social engagements. Again, this is the child who is excited to be around friends. Don’t take that away to solve the aggressiveness problem. Stay with them. Talk to them throughout the activity.

Second, stay calm. All children model what they see. If you want calm children, you must be calm.

Third, don’t focus on correcting their aggression. Build into their sense of identity by spending extra quality time with them at home. In their safest environment, start to encourage them to express their feelings through activities other than social times. Try listening to music, looking at old family photos, going on a walk (or to the indoor nature center if it is too cold outside), or baking cookies together. Somehow make it a point to invest more of your emotions into building up theirs.

Fourth, take note of when you see aggressive behavior and when they seem most calm. If observing your child doesn’t feel natural, then take time off from other activities at home in order to focus on them. Maybe you need to spend spring break entirely engaged by figuring out their patterns. Simply jot down what they are doing when they seem most excited, note how long the excitement lasts, and then note what they were like when the excitement was over. Get to know your child’s highs and lows.

If social engagements are consistently off the charts with excitement, take time to consider if your child needs a break from such emotionally charged situations. One clue that this is the case is if they are also completely drained after the engagement.

One thing I’ve made a point to communicate to my kids is that I have protective instincts. They know I’m willing to fight for them. And they have seen me do it. I’m willing to go to bat so that they don’t have to.  I’m also willing to fight them for their best interest. They are still too young to know exactly what is best for them.

They can be at rest knowing that I take responsibility to do what is best for them so that they do not have to be aggressive to do what is best for themselves.

Support them, comfort them, and be their safe place. Regardless of what educational philosophy you hold, be on the look out for these signs and be prepared to help the kids in your life.

This is part one of the Warning Signs of Loneliness in Kids. If you missed the Intro to this series or the list of topics to be covered, check it out here.

 

Warning Signs of Loneliness in Kids :: Series Intro

I recognize that loneliness isn’t an easy topic to tackle. It isn’t straightforward.

It’s defined vaguely as “feeling alone.” But for some people, feeling alone means freedom, independence, and quiet. The definition goes on to explain: without companionship or support.

I think of loneliness as the feeling that no one truly knows me. And when I have felt this way in the past, even as a child, I didn’t come out and say I have a deep desire to be known and affirmed. No, I often was moody and aggressive. I see now that I was over analyzing myself and others, and this caused me great confusion as a child.

As an adult, I have picked a fight with my husband in an effort to get his attention as a means of saying Will you please pay attention to me? I’m feeling unsupported here.

These are examples of singular times when I’ve felt alone, but neither time was I able to articulate that loneliness was the problem.

Do you want to learn more about why your kid acts the way they do? Are you ready to be a safe place for them?

Then this series is for you.

Why loneliness in kids?

Because I see lonely kids all around me. In kids, loneliness can look as unique as the child’s face. It isn’t a disposition or personality type. We’ve all seen the TV shows that reveal the most popular kids in high school are lonely. On the other hand, the most quiet and alone kids aren’t. It isn’t the loud or the quiet kids that suffer from being lonely; it can be both. Loneliness can’t be heard; it is seen in the eyes.

Behaviors that spring up from loneliness can be confusing; kids can amplify strengths or magnify weaknesses in their personality. Meaning again that all kids will act differently when they are lonely, and all this exaggerated behavior is to call attention to a big emotional problem. A problem that most kids can’t articulate to the adults who care for them. Sadly, most of us try to discipline their loud or aggressive behaviors instead of putting it aside to comfort them.

It has been monumental for me to realize that I must commit to being my kids’ advocate in this area. Friendships are hard to find. Being a friend is not always easy. Finding lifelong friendships take time and effort, but I don’t like the person I become when I let my friendships grow cold.

The same is true in kids.  It is just harder to discern.

So I have a lot of ground to cover – this is just the intro. But here’s the list of behaviors I’d like to dig into and reveal the deeper loneliness that is hidden in kids:

Then the conclusion: How to Help a Child Struggling with Loneliness.

So if you’re looking for labels or quick and easy tips to avoid loneliness, then this series isn’t for you. But if you want to know the kids in your care, then let’s seek to understand this issue better together.

My son & I

My Son and I

My son and I are a lot alike.

He likes to observe, analyze, and figure things out.

No one taught him how to do this, and he spends all of his time thinking. I spend most of my time trying to slow him down from jumping to wrong conclusions. He is quick to judge and even quicker to trust his own judgments above reality. It can be very tricky to train him.

He also loves to talk.

He will begin a conversation by engaging someone’s attention, only to walk away from them – still talking! He doesn’t realize it but he loves using his words even if no one can hear them. He knows how to express himself with words, and he has enough confidence to do so all day long.

He faces little rejection, but I fear the day when his expression of himself and his words will be shut up, stomped on, and quieted.

Like I was.

I didn’t know when I was little that I had a gift. That being able to express myself with words would one day be valuable. I liked to observe, analyze, and figure things out. The problem for me was that I was the little sister. The baby. And no one had time to train my talent. Instead it was seen as an inconvenience, annoying, and wrong.

When I was 7 or 8 years old, I remember feeling crushed by the constant taunts to “shut up and be quiet.” All the you’re wrongs, you’re stupids, and you’re too littles took their toll. I was broken down piece by piece.

Pride quickly became my companion, promising to build me back up.

As time went on, pride created a wall that I could feel protected behind and encouraged me to fight back whenever I was told be be quiet. Even when I was wrong, pride whispered that always being right was worth fighting for. So I fought through tears and shame for the value of my words.

Words have always meant that much to me.

Oh how many times I was wrong to use words the way I did, yet I kept up the fight. Pride pushed me to keep going way farther than I was able to go. My strength failed, and my life seemed constantly out of control. And oh how many mistakes I made because I wasn’t willing to humbly listen.

Pride had closed my ears to all others when it freed my mouth to speak.

Sin always carries hidden costs.

I had to start coping with my mistakes, joking that I guess I’m just one of those who has to learn through mistakes. Deep down, I felt that this joke was a lie. Right along with the lie that I’ll never change. Both of these made me cringe. Never change? Always make mistakes? Would I ever be able to grow?

To me, learning has always equaled changing. Developing. And my mistakes were hurting me, keeping me from the change and development I craved.

And another cost of my pride was bearing loneliness. Very few people could see through my prideful exterior. Being alone had always been my biggest fear, and as a young adult that biggest fear was reality.

When the Spirit broke through that wall of pride, I was comforted and silenced. It took years upon years, trial upon trial, to redeem a proper view of myself and my expressions. If I’m not careful, I still carry a fear of using words too soon. Fear of protecting myself with pride.

So when it comes to training my son, I see myself in him. I know what harm can be done, from the inside and the outside. I’m learning what could have been, and what he can be. I’m praying to discern his hurts from his pride, but I can’t save him from encountering them. I can only guide him through these realities, and as I do something beautiful happens.

As he grows, my scars fade. As he develops, my heart expands. As he questions, theorizes, and shares himself with me, I have compassion for him and for myself. Through him, I’m given the gift of a second chance. A chance to heal from misguided guilt and shame, and make a difference in his life.

Training him to express himself wisely with his words is my kid-ucation.