Articles and Topics
The Lonely Child
In today's world we tend to worry about the hurried child, the aggressive child, the hyperactive child, the over-scheduled child—and possibly many other conditions that identify developmental challenges. Far less likely to be included on such lists is a condition that I consider equally indicative of problems ahead—the lonely child. Several of the questions I have received from parents on this web page have strengthened my conviction about this.

Chances are, all of us have experienced loneliness at some time in our lives—the loss of a beloved family member, a move to a new city away from friends and acquaintances, the breaking off of an emotional relationship. With adults, such loneliness can quickly escalate into depression. Fortunately most of us have developed techniques of adapting to the circumstances that produced or intensified the loneliness and thereby avoid a true depression. But for children, especially very young ones, this is difficult.

What do I mean by a lonely child? It is the child who seems never to have a partner when 3-year-olds are paired up for crossing the street, even if there is an even number of children in the group. It is the 4-year-old whom no one wants to ride in the fire engine with. It is the 5-year-old whom two or three children move away from in morning circle. It is the 6-year-old who is always the last one chosen for a game. It is the only child in the classroom who doesn't get an invitation to a birthday party or receive a valentine. Often it is the child who says, 'I don't want to go to school today' and who will answer the question 'Why?' with, 'Because nobody likes me.'

Some children, seemingly on their own, pick up skills that enable them to have better relations with their peers. Sometimes their peers, with candor that burns like acid, will say, 'The other kids don't like you because…' and run through either a short or long list of inadequacies. But most lonely children cannot accept such criticism, even if it is intended to be helpful. Some merely withdraw further, whereas others deny and become defensive.

There are a number of things parents can do to help a child who fits this pattern:

(1) Be available as a companion to your child. Until your child develops better social skills, it is important that you provide companionship. You can't invite her to a birthday party, but you can see to it that she gets a valentine. (If you learn about that birthday party, you might even call the mother and say sweetly that, since all the children in the class were invited, there must have been a slip-up in the sending of your child's invitation.) And you can visit museums and parks and relatives, and have fun discussing them later.

(2) Help your child learn how to approach other children or enter a group. Reflect for a moment on how timid you feel when you go to a party where you don't know many people and can't think of a thing to say. Suddenly you notice a woman who has on shoes like some of yours, and you say delightedly, 'I have a pair of shoes just like that.' And, voila, you're conversing and are 'in' a group. You can help your child learn to do things like that—to offer a compliment, to proffer a toy, to offer to play an unpopular role in dramatic play, etc. Difficulty entering a group has been shown in what little research we have on lonely children to be a frequent characteristic of such children. Role-playing such situations with your child may be helpful.

(3) Arrange social encounters with only one or two other children—and stay close. Some children who can't enter groups of 20 can manage fairly well with one or two—and develop social skills in the process. Bring out toys and games likely to need all the children as participants. And don't hesitate to play yourself. But make certain you don't overshadow the child whose social skills you are attempting to improve.

(4) Get help from your child's teacher. If your child is in any kind of group program—play group, preschool, child care—discuss your concerns with the teacher. Ask her to make a special effort to see to it that your child has a partner when children are paired off, and suggest to her that your child may need her help in initiating or maintaining contact with other children.

This situation is not likely to change overnight. Furthermore, it may be intensified by any major move (from one neighborhood or school or church to another). Your efforts to help you child make and keep one good friend will make a big difference. But if, in spite of all your best efforts, he or she remains unaccepted and alone, you should probably seek professional help.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education