LANCASHIRE & LONELINESS: ‘It can be hard to spot a lonely child’

A lonely child
A lonely child

Loneliness is a problem affecting young people just as much as the elderly, experts have claimed.

As part of a series looking at the issue across the county, leading academics have explained what causes loneliness, and who can experience it.

EXPERT VIEW: Dr Pamela Qualter

EXPERT VIEW: Dr Pamela Qualter

Read the first in our series here: ‘Being socially isolated can be as harmful as smoking’

“Loneliness isn’t a phenomenon of older people”, said Dr Pamela Qualter, of the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan).

“It’s something we see across the life span, but there are peaks and troughs.”

Psychology expert Dr Qualter has been researching loneliness among adolescents and children for the past 20 years. She said: “People just don’t see it as something we see in childhood and adolescence but we do, and it’s at its highest peak in adolescence.”

Durham University.

Durham University.

Dr Qualter said loneliness was not always about social isolation.

She said: “Being socially isolated can cause loneliness, but there are lots of people who just feel disconnected from the world, so they are almost inherently lonely. Most of us will feel lonely at some point of our lives, but we manage to re-engage with people and get over that.

“Most of us are able to re-engage and that’s wonderful.” Dr Qualter has looked at loneliness among children and said: “Social isolation does feed into it, so kids who are rejected at school tend to be those who feel lonely.

“It isn’t always the case, some of those kids are very popular children, but it’s almost like they look at the social environment in a very negative way. It’s almost like they are pre-wired to be on alert to negative information, so if they are placed in a social situation, while they appear to have lots of friends, they are looking for the negatives and looking for people who might reject them.

“It’s really hard to spot a lonely child.

“Some who are socially isolated might be okay with that.

“Some might be very popular but they feel this inherent worry about being rejected in that social environment.”

Dr Qualter said some of the explanation behind children feeling lonely was likely to be biological, while it could also be to do with parents, particularly mothers.

She said: “They might come home from school and say ‘This person has said this to me’.

“Some mums might say ‘They might be just having a bad day’. I suspect what parents of lonely children say is ‘They might just be mean, be careful.’

“Watching mums when they pick up their kids, that’s my suspicion. We’ve certainly found lonely kids have lonely mums. I think trust is a big thing. Lonely children tend to be quite distrustful, and I suspect the mums are like that.”

Dr Qualter said there were “peaks and troughs” of loneliness throughout life, including while dealing with frailty in old age.

She said: “Kids and adolescents we see again and again, and that’s groups leaving school and college to go to university or work, having to deal with a whole new social situation, and that’s scary.

“But most of them will get over that and re-engage.

“A very small group of people will not be able to do that.

“In most studies, there are usually about six per cent of each age group who will not be able to overcome that.”

Dr Qualter said another peak in loneliness was motherhood and said: “Some mums go and expose themselves to all sorts of things but some, even if they do these things, still feel lonely.

“Some talk about not fitting in.

“You’re having to deal with so many changes, your life becomes something different and, while you might have thought you would love it, some don’t love it.”

Dr Qualter said there was a “stigma” around being lonely and she said: “It’s really sad because we all feel it at some point in our lives, and it’s one of the biggest taboos. There’s that recent push to get people talking about older people feeling lonely, that almost makes young people feel worse.

“I think we just have to start being more open and more honest and just talking about the fact it’s a really normal experience, and we all feel it.

“The wonderful thing is most of us can get over it. And those of us who currently can’t get over it, with a bit of help, probably can.”

For help, contact Lancashire Mind on 01257 231660, or the national Mind helpline on 0300 123 3393

Read the first in our series here: ‘Being socially isolated can be as harmful as smoking’