The teenage years are a time of great exhilaration. In our teen years, we start to explore our identities and probe deeper into questions about who we are, what we want to become, and what our place in the world is. Teenagers gain a sense of autonomy and start making their own choices. The ability to be self-aware accompanies the ability of abstract thought, which allows teenagers to consider the plethora of identities they can adopt and the future consequences that these identities entail. They start to question their beliefs and give serious thought to different ideologies – even those that they may presently oppose. Furthermore, the pull of the parents loosens as teenagers start to embrace the company of their peers. Teenage years are thus marked by intense social activity.
What happens, though, if a teenager is deprived of this flurry of socializing? Desiring some solitude is natural and can be thoroughly rejuvenating. But prolonged solitude has the potential to morph into something debilitating – social isolation. When teenagers feel as if they don’t belong in social settings, or when they have no one to confide in and seek support from, they may experience social isolation. The roots of this isolation may lie in both the personality of the teen and the environment and circumstances they find themselves in.
Causes of Social Isolation
Some teenagers naturally gravitate to solitude. Students who prioritize grades over a rich social life may decide to devote their time to studying by themselves, others may like indulging in hobbies that are solitary by nature – writing, painting, etc. Some teens, however, do not choose to be alone but may end up isolated socially as a result of habits, circumstances, or mental health issues. Some of the possible causes behind social isolation are:
- Social media use: Teenagers who spend a significant chunk of their time on social media apps may consider it a good substitute for face-to-face interaction. The more time they spend online, the less time they have for social activities.
- Bullying: Teens who are bullied may choose to withdraw. They may avoid initiating conversations or participating in social activities out of fear. They may also isolate themselves in an attempt to avoid trauma.
- Social skills: Deficiency in interpersonal skills becomes magnified in the teenage years. This can prevent a teen from forming lasting friendships. They may be perceived as socially awkward and excluded from groups.
- Anxiety: Teens who are afraid of crowds or have an intense fear of being ridiculed are likely to isolate themselves to avoid emotional distress. They may have a strong desire to befriend others, but overwhelming fear may hold them back. Low self-esteem may also squash all thoughts of reaching out to others.
- Depression: The lack of motivation and feeling of exhaustion may also prevent a teen from socializing. Unceasing emotional distress can turn socializing into a tedious and emotionally draining ordeal.
Teenage years play an indispensable role in the social growth and emotional maturation of a person. Lack of a healthy social life can sabotage this growth and cause issues that persist through adulthood.
Effects of Social Isolation
The teenage years are marked by an inherent sense of stress and confusion. Teenagers must learn to navigate the complexities of the mature world — personal agency and responsibility; social status, contracts, and rituals; ideological affiliations; shifting relationships. Lack of social integration serves to only increase their perplexity. This can have a direct negative impact on both physical and mental health:
- Heightened stress A reliable peer group allows a teen to discuss their thoughts and share stories that their peers can relate to and provide thoughtful guidance on. Without this, teens feel persistently stressed which can lead to increased cortisol levels that harm their bodies.
- Poor sleep Constant stress can be highly disruptive to sleep. Teens may thus have a less restful sleep and wake up feeling fatigued. Tight schedules and obligations can further erode the restorative benefits of sleep and lead to a feeling of perpetual exhaustion.
- Poor self-care Teens who spend a lot of time alone start neglecting their hygiene – they neglect bathing and grooming because they believe it doesn’t matter. They may also have a poor diet that lacks nutrition and may avoid exercise, which can lead to health consequences such as obesity.
- Pessimism A solitary lifestyle that lacks regular meaningful conversations and social activities can fade the color of life. Isolated teens develop a bleak outlook on life and may even become hostile to others. Their suffering could provoke them to make regretful choices which further adds to the hopelessness the teen might be feeling
- Difficulty with regulating emotions As we spend more time with others, we learn to appreciate the differences in the thoughts and opinions of others. We become more tolerant and open-minded. Since cordial behavior is rewarded by society, teens learn to regulate their emotions and not act impulsively. Teens who keep to themselves miss the opportunity to learn these skills and may have difficulty controlling their emotions.
- Reduced empathy Isolated teens don’t develop a strong bond with the community and have a lower capacity to empathize with others. They also feel distrustful of others and their constant suspicion further impairs their ability to connect with others.
- Substance abuse A supportive peer group can be surprisingly helpful in times of distress. Teens who lack such a social structure feel alone and helpless in their ordeals. As they fail to develop healthy coping strategies, they may turn to substances to alleviate their emotional pain. Addictions formed during this age can hinder growth and cause lasting damage. Substance Abuse in Teenagers (nddtreatment.com)
- Anxiety and Depression Reduced exposure to new people and environments can impair the teen’s ability to deal with challenging situations. Social skills require practice, and teens who lack these skills may dread social activities and avoid interaction with others. They may develop persistent anxiety, and withdraw from society, which can culminate in depression and increased risk of suicide. How do you know if your teenager needs help?
How Parents Can Help
Teens who struggle to forge meaningful relationships with their peers might feel lost and unable to find a way to fix things. As a parent, you can help your child navigate this maze in many ways:
- Communication: Teens may be reluctant to talk about being socially isolated. They may feel ashamed, embarrassed, or angry. You can bring up the topic gently and ask how they are feeling. Help them feel heard and cared for. Remind them that you are always available for help.
- Practice: Encourage your child to join a small club that appeals to their interests. Shared interests remove the barrier for conversation and may help ease your child’s anxiety. Building rapport is not as daunting in a small group, and your child may pick up social skills much faster in the company of like-minded teens.
- Volunteering: Ask your child if they would like to volunteer for a cause they believe in. Volunteering can help build confidence and self-esteem. Your child will be surrounded by people who have similar beliefs and values which can provide many opportunities for interaction. Being a part of a group will also give them a sense of solidarity and belongingness.
When to Seek Professional Help
If your child is struggling despite trying their best to socialize, or if social isolation is causing significant mental anguish, it would be wise to contact a professional for help. A psychotherapist can help your child find the underlying issue that is responsible for their social dysfunction and formulate a plan to overcome it. A professional will also be able to gauge the severity of the situation and recommend additional tools and treatments that would be of utmost benefit to your child.
New Dimensions Can Help!
If you or someone you know is experiencing any of the above symptoms or problems, New Dimensions can help. Our team of experienced therapists and psychiatrists can help you overcome these challenges and help you develop the skills you need to thrive. To schedule a complementary assessment or to find out more about our programs, contact us at 1-800-685-9796.
Our affiliate, MHThrive, provides Individual Therapy, Couples and Marriage Counseling, and Family Therapy at our locations in Katy, The Woodlands, and the Clear Lake area of Houston, Texas. We also provide telehealth therapy for anyone who resides within the State of Texas. To schedule an appointment with one of the MHThrive therapists, contact us at 713-477-0333 or visit www.mhthrive.com to learn more.