A teen’s social world is everything to them. Who they hang out with, the kids they relate to, and the extracurricular activities they participate in all help the teenager to define a sense of self. Most teens are very sensitive to the FOMO possibility, or the fear of missing out, and will feel badly if they didn’t get to participate in a social event. Teenagers will go to great lengths to ensure that they are aware of the happenings among their peers, simply because social life is such a significant aspect of this age group.
However, not all teens are outgoing and social by nature. Some might be more introverted and some may have low self-confidence. Some adolescents suffer from social anxiety, which can keep them trapped in isolation due to the irrational fear of being ridiculed or harshly judged while in a public setting.
When a teenager struggles socially, it can result in feelings of profound loneliness. As a result, they may become depressed, which can then cause a cascade of other symptoms that only add to their suffering. By understanding about the causes of teenage loneliness it can help parents take steps to help their child overcome obstacles and improve social functioning.
What Causes Teen Loneliness?
The teen years are often punctuated with occasional bouts of moodiness, including feelings of loneliness. Some teens, however, may like holing up in their rooms. These adolescents may be loners, preferring time alone to spending their spare time with peers. Some teens are more studious and tend to gravitate toward solitude where they will not be distracted from their work. Others may have solitary hobbies, such as creating art or writing, which results in reduced social time.
But when a teen exhibits a distinct shift in their personality, going from a friendly, social person to being withdrawn and isolated, it is cause for concern.
There are a variety of factors that might contribute to teenage loneliness. These might include:
- Social media. With more social time spent interacting through phone apps, the result is a more superficial connection with others. Meaningful relationships require face-to-face time and authentic conversations. When considering the impact of social media on teens, Alexandra Hamlet, PsyD., a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, states, “The less you are connected with human beings in a deep, empathic way, the less you’re really getting the benefits of a social interaction.”
- Recent relocation. If a family has recently moved causing the teen to have to change schools, it can be difficult to adjust to the new school environment. Changing schools during adolescence is more difficult, as social bonds and friendships have been established. It is common for the teen to feel lonely without their old group of friends, as well as sad about missing out on the activities they are enjoying without him or her.
- Being bullied. Teens that are the target of bullies may naturally tend to avoid re-experiencing these distressing situations at school functions. They may instead choose to stay home where they won’t be exposed to the individuals that cause them emotional harm. Bullying and social shaming can also be played out on social media, further marginalizing the teen.
- Relationship problems. A teen that avoids social events or school functions might have difficulty with interpersonal skills. They may be socially awkward, lacking the skills to interact with peers. They may have issues with conflict resolution or anger management that results in other teens avoiding them, leaving them with few friends. Low self-esteem or lack of confidence can contribute to problems relating to others.
- Depression. Teens that suffer from depression will tend to withdraw socially. As the teen succumbs to depression, they may sleep more, self-isolate, and experience more fatigue. These symptoms cause the teen to lack motivation to get out of the house and socialize, which results in feelings of teenage loneliness.
- Social anxiety. Some teens struggle with intense feelings of fear and dread around being criticized by their peers. They may avoid any situation that might provide an opportunity for someone to judge them harshly or ridicule them. This anxiety will often result in isolating behaviors. The teen wants to see their friends but cannot bear the thought of possibly being the object of ridicule, so they just stay home.
- Body image issues. Some teens may experience body dysmorphia, or the irrational criticism of their body shape or appearance. The teen may have an exaggerated view of their perceived imperfections or flaws, which can result in isolating behaviors.
In addition to the real time concerns regarding a lonely teen, social isolation can also have mental health implications. According to a study presented at the International Conference on Social Science and Humanity, the authors found that teen girls who experienced loneliness and social isolation tended to become depressed, where teen boys would gravitate toward violence and substance abuse.
About Teen Depression
Teen depression can become a significant concern for parents. With suicide rates rising 56% in this age cohort in recent years, it is wise to be proactive if the teen exhibits a cluster of the following symptoms most of the time over a two-week period:
- Loss of interest in the activities or hobbies usually enjoyed
- Persistent feelings of hopelessness and sadness
- Low self-esteem, feeling inadequate, inferior to peers
- Changes in sleep patterns, hypersomnia or insomnia
- Changes in eating habits, sudden weight gain or loss
- Fatigue, listlessness
- Relationship problems
- Withdrawing socially, isolating behavior
- Highly sensitive to criticism
- Difficulty concentrating in school, declining academic performance
- Frequent physical symptoms, such as headaches or stomach aches
- Irritability, aggression, angry outbursts
- Suicidal thoughts or attempts
The teen should first be evaluated by a medical doctor to rule out a health condition as the source of the depression symptoms.
About Teen Social Anxiety
Teens who suffer from social anxiety disorder may experience a great deal of emotional distress throughout their days, versus the typical response of the occasional jitters or clammy palms when in a stressful social situation. The symptoms of social anxiety disorder may include:
- Intense worry well in advance of an upcoming social event
- Irrational fear of being humiliated in public
- Excessive fear of being judged by others
- Shortness of breath
- Blushing easily
- Excessively self-critical
- Stomach upset and nausea
- Racing heart
- Feeling faint
Social anxiety can thwart the teen’s high school experience, putting a crimp in establishing new friendships, pursuing academic or extracurricular challenges, and cultivating healthy family relationships.
About Teen Low Self-Esteem
Low self-esteem can have a significant impact on a teen’s social development. Teens with low self-esteem may begin to hide from their peers rather than face perceived judgment. Low self-esteem can manifest itself in a variety of ways, including:
- Excessive bragging
- Disordered eating habits, such as binge eating
- Negative self-talk
- Slouching, walking with the head down, avoiding eye contact
- Difficulty keeping friends
- Prefers social isolation and playing video games rather than interacting with peers
- Avoids competitive sports or academic competitions
- Irrational feelings of shame or guilt, constantly apologizing
Low self-esteem that results in social isolation and teenage loneliness will potentially lead to substance abuse, truancy, or missed opportunities.
Tips for Parents
Parents may initially assume that their teenager’s isolating behaviors are just a phase, something the teen will cycle through. When it becomes a protracted period of isolation the parent is advised to consider the following tips to attempt to discern the root cause of the isolating behaviors:
- Limit the teen’s time on social media. Parents can also monitor the phone activity through apps that enable them to see all correspondence in their teen’s phone. Parents should restrict social media exposure by taking the teen’s phone at bedtime.
- Meet with teachers or school officials. There may be a situation at school that is fueling the social isolation.
- Encourage the teen to seek out a club or activity at school that might help them make new friends.
- Pay attention to how you speak to your teen. If a parent is overly critical or makes the teen feel bad about themselves then this will fuel low self-confidence.
- Sit down with the teen and have a calm conversation with him or her regarding what may be troubling them enough to want to withdraw socially, and be a good listener.
- Be on the lookout for signs of self-harming behaviors, such as cuts or scars on their arms.
- Check the teen’s bedroom, car, or backpack for drugs or alcohol.
Getting Help for Teens Who Struggle with Social Functioning
A mental health professional can assist a teen in sorting out the issues that may be behind the loneliness and social isolation. After a thorough evaluation, the psychotherapist or doctor will schedule individual and family therapy sessions, as well as teen support groups and other experiential activities that can help the teen overcome the underlying issue that is inhibiting their social functioning.
BNI Treatment Centers Provide Residential Mental Health Treatment for Teens
BNI Treatment is a Los Angeles-based residential teen mental health center owned and operated by two psychiatrists. BNI Treatment provides primary mental health treatment, acute stabilization, medical detox, substance abuse treatment, and dual diagnosis treatment for adolescents ages 12-17. BNI Treatment Centers can provide more intensive treatment for a teen that struggles with loneliness due to depression or anxiety. The program features solid evidence-based treatment protocols in addition to a wide array of adjunct therapies, such as surf therapy, equine therapy, drama therapy, art therapy, music therapy, yoga, and meditation. For more information about our residential mental health program for teens, please contact BNI Treatment today at (888) 522-1504.