Alone and Afraid :: Warning Signs of Loneliness in Kids, Part 4

Joe Butterfly

I’m not going to pick on introverts. I have a special love for them.

I am them.

But even though I’m in a special, happy place when I’m alone – I don’t like who I become when I’ve been alone too much.

The same is true for my daughter. It has been difficult, balancing her alone time. She has a brother who is an extrovert and enjoys talking with someone all-the-time. And so on the rare occasions when she can be outside his vocal range, she has done things that were destructive and compulsive and she doesn’t know why.

She would not say that she was lonely or that she wanted to be with someone, just that something didn’t feel right.

She would say something I remember saying when I was her age: “Just leave me alone.”

Oh, how those words hurt me. Saying them and hearing them.

At over thirty, I’ve grown out of this some. Or maybe I can just see it whereas before I was blind.

Before kids I worked outside the home and I liked the accountability. But my “off time” was “free time,” and alone time wasn’t always good for me. I was unsupported, my companions weren’t always there for me, and I was lonely. Instead of reaching out, I retreated in. I wasn’t confident in my identity and I wasn’t a safe place for myself.

The more lonely I became, the more I wanted alone time. And the more alone I was, the more fearful I was of social engagements. I’m pretty sure I was suffering from a chemical imbalance of some sort, but I can only see that in hindsight.*

And that’s when fear became an untamable beast in my world. Every social engagement became an exercise in controldo-not-panic I would preach to myself. I shied away from more and more places. I didn’t want to engage in small talk anywhere. I was afraid to run into people I knew in the store. I would hide.

(If you ever saw me turn, run, and hide – I apologize. It’s not you, it was me.)

My husband would say, “but you don’t look scared of being around them – you’re smiling!” And I could smile. That was all a part of the grasp on control. I knew I shouldn’t feel so fearful of others, somewhere inside I knew that what I truly needed was more people not less.

Then add in small children.

I knew I needed to get out of the house with them. We would go to the park, the store, the library. Those places only pacified our need for relationship by putting us around people. We weren’t with any of them. We didn’t belong to them. We weren’t supported by them.

It wasn’t until my oldest was nearly 6-years-old that I realized that I had to change our social habits or she would never gain the companionship she needs.

Joe Butterfly with friends

And me? I’m amazed at how much different I feel toward people since embracing how I’m wired. I was designed to share, encourage, and support. Fear taught me that people don’t need that from me. I believed they wanted wit, humor, and surface. But love has taught me that I’m free from the expectations I thought others had of me.

Now I still don’t jump at every chance to be in a group, and neither does my daughter, but I strive for a better balance in our overall routine. I pursue investing in others on purpose because loneliness will never be cured by spending more time alone.

*One thing I must encourage strongly is the need for healthy companionship. If you feel like you can relate deeply to the feelings I explained here, please open up to someone trustworthy.

This is Part 4 in the series, to catch up on the other posts click here for the Index.

Laziness and Moodiness :: Warning Signs of Loneliness in Kids, Part 3

Listless and cranky. Bubbly one minute and barking the next. Impossible to predict. A challenge to train and guide.

There could be thousands of reasons why children behave in these ways on any given day. And believe me, I’d be the first to comfort someone if they were struggling and exhibiting these traits for a good reason.

But what if this is becoming a pattern? And what if it is really annoying and hard to train? And what if I’ve tried to parent the child through their bad attitude and it isn’t letting up? What’s feeding this behavior?

These two frustrating behaviors could be the fruit of loneliness.

First, laziness is a lack of motivation, an unwillingness to make an effort.

Laziness can be a result of too many hurts. A child is naturally bent toward doing. They feel their “being” and express it with actions. It’s the reason why toddlers are often labelled “busy.” I’ve never observed a lazy 2-year-old. They are busy, and they do a lot. Until they are stopped. Or hurt. And this is when pain teaches children (and adults too) that their being isn’t good enough.

The kind of behavior that shows me a child has given up is when they are no longer motivated by rewards or positive reinforcements. It isn’t the same as being bored.

At the root of laziness is a confusion of identity.

Every child needs to be able to anchor their feelings to their identity. So that at the end of any given day, they know who they are, who they belong to, and why that matters. Before they know that their doing matters they need to know that their being matters. Feelings must be interpreted through identity. Our culture allows us to define our identity by our feelings, and this leads to an unstable emotional and physical state. The push to define their being by their doing doesn’t satisfy.

Talking through how a child feels about a situation or action isn’t enough. They need to know what to do with their feelings. Is it valid for them to be feeling that way or not? Identity isn’t bossy. Feelings are. Kids need help to know what their anchor is and how to process their feelings based on that anchor.

A child’s identity needs to start with a solid family identity. For our family, we’ve chosen to teach our kids a “team view” of family identity. I remind them often that we are on the same team, we are doing the task together, and we enjoy the benefits of belonging because of the team view. We review our priorities often so that they know why our family has chosen to live a certain way and what those benefits are.

Second, moodiness is unpredictable and intense. Cheerful and excited one minute and angry and grumpy the next.

A child like this may have an issue with excitement. The thrill of being around other people followed by the disappointment of it coming to an end. This pattern of moodiness is relatively easy to talk a child through.

But when it’s ongoing, I think it is a mild sign of loneliness. The reason why I think moodiness comes out of lonely kids is because they do not have enough support and companionship. Or they can’t articulate their need for support in a specific area of their personal growth.

When kids are moody with their family it can be a sign that they are refusing the type of support and companionship offered at home. And there may need to be some examination of whether the child is being supported there.

Like the child who is aggressively excited for social engagements, being more social doesn’t cure moodiness in a lonely child.

Often when a child is exhibiting moody behavior to mom and dad, they need to be given more attention not less. Think of this as feedback and not as a separate behavior. Address the activity or engagement that is causing their response and help them process that. They may need to be validated that their experience was difficult or challenging. They may need affirmation that they still have a companion in you. They may need help to see themselves in a different light.

Supporting them through their feedback behavior looks like condoning it or ignoring it, but working on the root issue, helping them process their feelings, helps them know their identity. Once they are settled and their behavior becomes more steady, that’s when I gently address the behavior that was moody and off balance.

I’ve heard it preached that parents need to address behaviors immediately with children, but it is actually counterproductive. Kids have strong memories. They are able to think back one, two, or even three whole days to their behavior. It is wise to give space and time for the root work to take effect before addressing feedback behavior.

This is the upside down logic of parenting. I don’t parent what I’m seeing now. I’m working on what’s deeper to create healthier soil for fruit and relationships with others to grow.

Have you already read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series? If not, check out the intro and start there.