Teenagers are especially prone to loneliness. The good news: They generally bounce back from these negative emotions, explains Louise Hawkley. She’s a psychologist at the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago. Here, she shares some suggestions for speeding a recovery from loneliness.
1. Reach out to others, but start small. A smile and a friendly greeting for the student behind you in line at the cafeteria won’t make you best friends. But it will make you both feel pretty good. It also can make it easier to interact the next time, and the next time and the time after that.
2. Find a safe place to make connections. If going to the school dance makes you feel like you just don’t belong, try joining a special-interest group. Maybe it’s the drama club or the marching band. Just because you feel left out in one group doesn’t mean you’ll feel like an outsider in every other one. Look for a group that allows you to ease in gradually.
3. Find other ways of making connections. Lonely people hunger for acceptance and friendship. Sometimes feeling accepted and liked comes more easily when you do something for others rather than waiting for them to make you feel better. So consider becoming a volunteer. Tutor a child in reading. Run errands for an elderly neighbor. Take notes for a disabled classmate. You might be surprised at the connections you make after reaching out in these ways.
4. Choose the right people. Loneliness is an absence of quality friendships, not of a particular quantity of friends. That’s why it’s important to know how to select a friend. The best friendships are those based on similar values and attitudes, not on looks and popularity.
5. You get what you expect, so expect the best. If you expect others to be friendly, you will behave in subtle ways that encourage people to be friendlier to you. If you expect people to be hostile, you may behave in ways that discourage friendliness. It can be hard work to be positive toward others. But starting the spiral of positive expectations can make all the difference.
For most young people, Hawkley says, loneliness is only temporary. It goes away as teens learn how “to navigate their social world” and connect with others.
Some teens aren’t so adaptable, however. They may be unusually sensitive to the pain of even small rejections — being left out of a conversation, for instance, or not getting invited to a party. That high level of sensitivity may lead to a growing sense of social isolation — feeling cut off from warm, supportive relationships.
When that begins in childhood or adolescence, it may trigger a vicious cycle of distorted thinking and self-defeating behavior. And if not stopped, this harmful outlook can persist throughout adulthood. “That’s why it’s so important that society takes seriously how it treats, and permits the treatment of, its vulnerable members,” Hawkley says. And that’s why she emphasizes the importance of tackling loneliness — such as by following the tips outlined here.