A question that is important to consider is how the seeds of loneliness get planted in the first place? If we consider loneliness a weed, we can’t simply pull the top off to remove it. We need to dig underground and get to the root of the problem. If you have any experience gardening, you will know that there is more than one root to a dandelion. As children, we are dependent on our caregivers to help us navigate our emotional world. As such, we also have to understand the role adults play in the emotional development of children can greatly influence their mental health. In my studies with Dr. Gabor Mate, he explores how the seeds of loneliness get planted. In his teachings he states that children have three primary, but competing needs: attachment, attunement and authenticity.
The first need we have as children is attunement. We need an adult to be emotionally attuned to us — not parents who are disengaged when they are playing with their kids. Not parents on their devices while their child is at the swimming pool. Then we have the needs of attachment and authenticity; the first need is for attachment — and that is about contact, connection, love and without that the child doesn’t survive. Our attachment needs are enormous. However, we have another need which is authenticity — this is the capacity to know what we feel, to be in touch with our bodies and to be able to express who we are in our relationships. Attunement is important because evolutionarily a person that is not in touch with their gut feelings isn’t going to survive in the wild.
So authenticity is another huge survival need. But what happens to a child where the attachment need is not compatible with the need for authenticity. In other words, if I am authentic, my parents will reject me. If I feel what I feel, express what I feel and insist on my own truth, my parents can’t handle it or my parents will abuse me. And parents convey those messages unconsciously all the time — not because they mean to but because they themselves are suppressed, traumatized, hurt or stressed.
The message many convey to their kids is they aren’t acceptable the way they are with their emotions. And what does the child do with that? They end up choosing attachment over authenticity as their life depends on someone caring for them. So there is no question what becomes suppressed is our authenticity, our emotions. It is the subtle, and not so subtle messaging that filters into our subconscious minds and can plant the seeds for emotional dysregulation and loneliness in children.
You may have had the experience of a strong gut feeling and ignored it and then got into trouble. That tells us what happened was at some point we found out it was too costly for our attachment relationships to be in touch with our gut feelings. If our environment does not or cannot support our gut feelings and emotions then the child, in order to belong and fit in, will automatically, unwittingly and unconsciously, repress or suppress their emotions and their connection to themselves for the sake of staying connected to the nurturing environment without which they can’t survive. We then pay the cost later on in the form of addictions, loneliness, mental illnesses or any range of physical illnesses — and it all begins with this tragic conflict that children should never be confronted with, but are all the time, between authenticity on the one hand and attachment on the other. This lack of connection which can have its origins in trauma further perpetuates the loneliness problem in our culture.
My first reason connects back to what I mentioned above regarding attachment, attunement and authenticity. If we don’t have proper attachments in place to begin with then we are more likely to get lost in the sea of emotions, thoughts, and relationships as we navigate the various seasons of our lives. I think trauma (whether it is big “T” or little “t”) plays a large role in our ability to connect with and understand ourselves and others. If we don’t feel safe, if our nervous system is on overdrive and thrust into a sympathetic state, we will operate in the world from a place of either fight, flight, freeze, fear or fawn. This can cause us to be reactive and defensive to those we come into contact with because we feel we are under threat. At the end of the day, there are only two states: Love (parasympathetic) or Fear (sympathetic). We need to teach our children self-compassion so that their nervous systems can shift to a parasympathetic state (love). Why is self-compassion so important? Kristin Neff in her book Self- Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, writes: “Because its driving force is love not fear. Love allows us to feel confident and secure (in part by pumping up our oxytocin), while fear makes us feel insecure and jittery (sending our amygdala into overdrive and flooding our system with cortisol). When we trust ourselves to be understanding and compassionate when we fail, we don’t cause ourselves unnecessary stress and anxiety. We can relax knowing that we’ll be accepted regardless of how well or how poorly we do. Unlike self-criticism which asks if you’re good enough, self-compassion asks what’s good for you?”
As such, a reason why the loneliness epidemic is such a crisis is because, as parents, we haven’t been taught the skills of emotional intelligence ourselves, and you can’t teach your children something you yourself haven’t been taught. Our kids need to be taught the skills of emotional intelligence such as: compassion, kindness, empathy, resilience, grit, purpose, etc. so that the voice of self-doubt is not the main operating system in our brains pushing us to places that leave us feeling lonely and isolated. We need to understand who has the microphone in our minds — the inner critic or the inner cheerleader? If it is the former, we need to bring the conversation out into the open to help shift the suffering that is happening in silence inside the heads of children. Without the ability to talk to someone regularly who can help us navigate the emotional storms that might be swirling around within, we can be swallowed up by the turbulence of our nervous system and potentially fall into the pit of depression.
2. The forced isolation of the pandemic is a contributing factor. This has been a collective global trauma for everyone and school age children were deeply affected. According to the Mental Health Foundation in the UK1, early in the pandemic, when young people were asked in March 2020 what their top concerns were about coping over the next few months, their top concern was isolation and loneliness.
- As the first lockdown was progressing in April/May 2020, 35% of young people said they feel lonely often or most of the time despite spending three hours on social media.
- In late November 2020, according to a survey of UK adults which took place nine months into COVID-19 restrictions, almost 50% of 18- to 24-year old’s reported being lonely during lockdown.
- In a YouGov poll responded to around the same time, 69% of adolescents aged 13–19 said they felt alone “often” or “sometimes” and 59% feel they have no one to talk to “often” or “sometimes”.
These findings suggest that pandemic restrictions are having a heavy toll on children and young people. One of the primary reasons that children and young people may be feeling lonely is the inability to socialise and mix with friends in and outside of educational settings at this time.
- 76% of young people have said not being able to see friends had a negative impact.
- 26% of respondents said their relationships with friends have got worse.
Friends are of particular importance to the development of a young person’s identity during these early life stages and they provide vital forms of support. Removing opportunities from children and young people to socialise with their peers appears to be contributing to feelings of loneliness and may have long term effects on their mental health.
While the pandemic has not helped our children’s mental health, it is important to point out that this problem existed prior to COVID19 and has only been exacerbated with it. As such, restrictions in response to the pandemic can’t be blamed fully for comparatively high feelings of loneliness in children and young people. Even before the pandemic, young people had been reporting they are more lonely than older generations.
3. Lack of emphasis on the physical foundations of health: nutrition, sleep and exercise.
As a Naturopathic Doctor, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the impact the physical foundations of health have on our mental health. Your tissues, organs, bones, blood, brain and every cell that makes up those parts of you are created from what you put in your body. You have probably heard the expressions, “you are what you eat,” “the car won’t run if you don’t put the right fuel in the tank,” or “garbage in/garbage out.” Well, this is absolutely true when it comes to your health and nutrition. I am not convinced that you are lonely, anxious and depressed because you have a deficiency of Prozac. You are lonely, anxious and depressed, perhaps, because your body is not supporting the pathway to make neurotransmitters or hormones on its own, either because:
- You do not have the essential nutrients to do so, or
- You are missing the nutritional cofactors along key neurotransmitter pathways (i.e. dopamine, Gaba, serotonin, etc.) or
- You are deficient in important nutrients or
- You are stressed and forming quinolinic acid instead.
There are also a number of other factors that can decrease the amount of key neurotransmitters in your body. They include:
- Seasonal affective disorder
- An excess of estrogen
- A low protein or high carbohydrate diet
- Chronic stress
- Excessive caffeine or alcohol consumption
- Thyroid disease
- Habitual use of tranquilizers, benzodiazepines, or sleeping pills
- A deficiency of beneficial gut flora, which impacts the gut-brain axis
You could also be impacted by heavy metals and endocrine disruptors in the environment. These chemicals can block receptors so that the neurotransmitters can’t get inside the cell to perform their function. In that case, it isn’t actually a deficiency problem, but a binding problem.
Michael Pollan has said that we have given up two hours per day in for our screens. What have we given up or sacrificed in the name of Instagram, TikTok, and being on our devices? Healthy eating, exercise, sleep and community. We need to ditch the technology and get back to the foundations of health. A simple suggestion for people is to start connecting in person with people vs via social media or texting through a device. Real connections. Not artificial ones. We need to get nose to nose and heart to heart with our children and face to face with one another.