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How to spot tell-tale signs of loneliness in your child and 10 of the best ways to deal with it

Many youngsters feel alone - here's how to detect the issue and tips to solve the problem. By Lisa Salmon

Loneliness isn't only felt by older people - around 60% of parents worry their child is lonely too. And research suggests they might be right.

One study of pre-school children found that more than one in 10 were lonely and unhappy with their social relationships, and other research concluded one in five children aged seven to 12 also felt lonely.

In addition, four out of five adolescents report similar feelings, with almost one-third describing the experience as "persistent and painful".

The Action for Children charity has published a report on loneliness in children, young people and families, which says there are clear links between loneliness in young people and poor mental and physical health and lower academic attainment.

Sir Tony Hawkhead, chief executive of Action for Children, says: "We know how loneliness can impact on lives - from a toddler who seldom meets people because of her mother's anxiety, to young carers with no time to make friends with people their own age.

"There is a role for each and every one of us in addressing loneliness in our communities."

With the help of mental health charity YoungMinds, Action for Children has come up with some tips for parents to not only spot the signs of loneliness, but to help their kids deal with it too.

Signs to look out for

Even if a child doesn't say they're lonely you may pick up signs, for example:

  • They always come out of school alone.
  • They aren't invited on play dates.
  • They don't go out with friends or have them round.
  • They seem to have a cloud over their head and sigh a lot.
  • They say they feel sad.
  • They spend a lot of time by themselves or in their room - although, remember some children are content to spend a lot of time alone, while others may be part of a large social circle but still feel lonely.

What to do if you think your child is lonely

1. Talk to your child. Show an interest in their friends and relationships. Talk to them about what healthy friendships are and ask them how they feel about their friendships.

2. Organise play dates at home or in a local activity centre.

3. Show by example. If you were a lonely child, or are a lonely adult, your child might be mirroring this. Make more friends of your own, for example through groups, activities and other parents, and help your child learn how to strike up conversations with new people, maybe by doing this yourself when you're out together.

4. Try not to be dismissive or discouraging when your child wants to fit in with the culture of their peers, as long as this doesn't carry any kind of risk. School culture and being able to fit in is vitally important to children, most acutely in secondary school. It might not be clear what kinds of things are 'in' or 'out' - what computer games/TV programmes/music/fashion they know and identify with are inextricably linked to acceptance and friendships. Listen to what they say and be open to what's really important to them.

5. See if there are groups or activities in your local area that your child would be interested in. Ask a teacher if you're not sure what activities your child's school offers and go through the options with your child to see if anything appeals.

6. Remember, loneliness is a feeling, not a measure of number of friends or time spent interacting socially.

7. Support your child in building their resilience by, for example, celebrating achievements, taking on responsibilities, understanding other people's feelings and facing fears.

8. Speak to a teacher or other member of staff at your child's school - they may be able to help but also look out for signs once they're aware.

9. Find ways of increasing communications and confidence with all sorts of people in different ways, such as texts to friends and relatives, chatting to neighbours, telling jokes or even learning magic tricks.

10. Encourage your child to watch out for other children who seem to be lonely, for example in the playground, and to go and chat to them.

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