I received an email last week from a parent who was concerned about her daughter: "...she's lonely and I don't know what to do. I heard her whisper to herself I wish I was someone else. I am distraught. How can I help her?"
It's heartbreaking if your child suffers from loneliness. Even more so if you can see them standing at a distance from the other children in the school playground, at a club or in a social situation. The standard parenting forums seem to respond with: arrange some ballet lessons, book more play dates or "don't worry she'll grow out of it."
But, I think that's papering over the cracks. There's a lot more to childhood loneliness than simply a child feeling lonely. I maybe out on my own here but I'm going to share my thoughts.
A child's loneliness has to be looked at as a small cog in a bigger wheel. Children are born with a natural a lust for life and a natural affinity towards others. They are born to play and if they're not, what's happened?
My experience has shown me that we have to look at the parents because it maybe that the child has simply copied behaviour and thinking that's displayed by the adults. People I speak to whose child is lonely are often pained by their child's loneliness because they know what it feels like because they were also lonely as children.
I certainly know how this manifests itself because I was a very lonely child and perhaps a better word for it was - isolated. In my case, you'd look at my parents and see them as the centre of the party with a wide circle of drinking friends. However, they weren't like that behind closed doors. They were deeply lonely and unhappy. Consequently, I learned that isolation was normal and you put on a really good party front when the friends came around.
Of course every family structure is different and unique. But I think that for many lonely children there lives a lonely parent. And that's the thing about being a parent, we can tell our children one thing but they learn from how we act and behave - not what we say. No matter how hard we try to hide it, there is no hiding place. If we are lonely, children intuitively pick it up and then they copy us.
I noticed my son was lonely when he was in primary school. He would draw paintings of himself standing on his own. I was desperate to help him but how could I tell him to make more friends when I couldn't make them myself? I knew I had to do something fast if I wanted to do well by him. So, I took a deep breath and started interacting with others.
It was hard at first because I was scared of being judged but, with time, I learned to lighten up. As a result, so did my son. Together we found families who were fun and inviting and we became part of a much wider circle of friends. And we both still have those friends today.
Being a lonely child has nothing to do with being an 'only' child. 'Only' children seem to fare better with making friends. I believe it's because they learned to enjoy their own company. And that's the key to beating loneliness - learning to like being with yourself. It's ironic that the children I know who love their own company and enjoy time on their own are also the most popular with others. They emit an attractiveness that other children want to be around. It's no different with us, is it? In my circle of friends, it's the happy, contented people who I and others' gravitate towards.
My son has left home now and I'm proud to say, loves his own company. And, I have him to thank for bringing me out of my shell.