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Social Isolation in Teens: The Damaging Effects of Being Left Out

Social Isolation in Teens: The Damaging Effects of Being Left Out

Teens are social creatures. Just pay attention next time you’re out with your daughter and her friends. If one of them has to go to the bathroom, they will likely all accompany her. Peer relationships are a vital part of your child’s development. So, if your son or daughter is experiencing social isolation, it needs to be addressed.

Social isolation in teens can be a result of chance or choice. The teen might have social anxieties that keep him or her from developing friendships or attending social activities, but peers can also isolate individuals by bullying or purposely excluding them.

What is Social Isolation?

Spending time alone is normal and healthy. But when that alone time is unwanted or unhealthy, it becomes something more serious. Socially isolated people may lack friends or close coworkers, and they often feel lonely or depressed. They can suffer from low self-esteem or anxiety. Teens who are struggling with social isolation may experience symptoms such as:

  • Avoiding social interactions, including those that were once enjoyable
  • Canceling plans frequently and feeling relief when plans are canceled
  • Experiencing anxiety or panic when thinking about social interactions
  • Feeling distress during periods of solitude
  • Feeling dread associated with social activities
  • Spending large amounts of time alone or with extremely limited contact with others

Causes of Social Isolation

  • Bullying and exclusion. A teen’s greatest desire is to fit in. Those who stand out due to how they look, dress, act, perform academically, etc. can be pushed out of many social groups.
  • Depression and anxiety. Depression is a catch-22. Though depression results in the individual withdrawing from social activities, often what is causing the depression is a lack of validation from peers.
  • Technology addiction. Teenagers spend most of their time “plugged in.” Whether it’s television, gaming, surfing the Internet or browsing social media, the majority of their free time is spent in a virtual world. The time they spend communicating virtually can take away from valuable face-to-face interactions.

The above are all factors that can contribute to social isolation, but our teens today have been experiencing an unprecedented amount of social isolation due to COVID 19 and a global pandemic. A recent study conducted last October found that 36 percent of participants reported feeling lonely “frequently” or “almost all the time or all the time” in the previous four weeks, and 61 percent of participants aged 18-25 reported high levels of those feelings. During this pandemic teens have had their lives turned upside down. Teens were used to built in socialization opportunities such as attending school or participating in after school activities. Now, school, clubs, and many other events have all gone virtual. This can be especially challenging for teens because they are entering a time in life where their peer relationships begin to take precedent over familial relationships. And since they are just beginning to transition into these relationships, they may not have built the connections they need to fight off loneliness. 

The Damaging Effects of Social Isolation

Though there are a number of explanations for social isolation in teens, each is detrimental to a teenager’s development. Whether it is because the teen is overly shy or cannot seem to find a peer group to fit in to, a lack of socialization can have a permanent effect. Loneliness has been associated with a number of poor mental health outcomes. It may be a response to a mental health condition or it could be the trigger that initiates a mental health condition.

  • Depression: There is a strong relationship between feeling loneliness and depression. If you’ve been feeling socially isolated or lonely, negative self-beliefs and suicidal thinking may increase, while life satisfaction often decreases. Self-isolation is also a common symptom of depressive episodes.
  • Anxiety: Because socialization takes practice, chronic loneliness can also lead to or exacerbate already existing social anxiety. Having a strong support system is a protective factor against anxiety, so if you don’t have that support, your general anxiety levels may increase and you could have a more difficult time with emotion regulation. 
  • Substance Use: Substance misuse/abuse is prevalent in people dealing with chronic loneliness or isolation. It is common to numb painful feelings with alcohol or other drugs. Loneliness is recognized as a risk factor in all stages of alcoholism. It can also have indirect effects on substance use due to increased stress.

Helping Your Teen

Teens who find themselves without meaningful peer relationships can have a hard time finding their way back to a social group. As a parent, there is a lot you can do to encourage your teen to reach out to peers, like:

Communicate: Teens who are dealing with social isolation may feel embarrassed and reluctant to talk about their struggles. Take time to do some extra check-ins with your teen if you suspect that they are having difficulties. They may not open up right away, but checking in reminds them that you are there for them. 

Build and practice skills: If your teen is struggling with social isolation, they may benefit from joining a small club or class with peers who share their interests. Being in a small group helps create opportunities to connect, and knowing that the other people in the group share an interest may ease some of their anxiety about starting a conversation. Another benefit to groups and classes is that they meet on a regular schedule and that consistency can help build rapport and relationships. 

Mindfulness: Teens who experience anxiety in social interactions can benefit from a mindfulness practice. Social anxiety may manifest in negative thought patterns where they believe that they will make an embarrassing mistake or that their peers will make fun of them. A mindfulness practice teaches teens to observe those negative thoughts and begin to discern which thoughts are true and which thoughts are false and detrimental. 

Volunteering: For some teens, being of service can help them feel more confident and connected. Giving back to their community helps them see their own value and meet like minded people. Teens who feel comfortable with animals may enjoy volunteering at a local shelter. A lot of their time will be spent working with the animals, but they will also be interacting with other volunteers and shelter staff. 

Seek outside help: There are many ways that you can help your teen connect at home, but if their struggles are persistent, it may be time to talk to a specialist to identify issues of depression or anxiety. Mental health professionals can help your teen create a treatment plan that best suits their needs. 

Connection Through Wilderness Therapy

Wilderness therapy provides a unique opportunity for teens to better understand themselves while connecting with their peers. At Trails Carolina, we provide a healthy environment for a variety of ages to receive treatment. We believe that segmenting groups by age and gender helps students learn to build positive relationships among their own peers. This makes the transition back to traditional school settings easier for young people. It helps our students learn how to interact and build healthy connections for life. 

Our students also learn to make relationships and build communication skills through wilderness and adventure activities. Adventure activities give students the chance to practice their relationship skills. Some students will gravitate toward leadership roles and learn the qualities of being an effective leader. Other students may need help getting out of their shell, and adventure activities provide them the opportunity to build friendships among their peers. For all of our students, learning how to effectively and appropriately communicate their needs in this setting helps them develop self-advocacy skills. 

As students work through their challenges, both mental and physical, they gain the ability to problem-solve. Whether dealing with a literal mountain in front of them, or the thoughts of anxiety in day-to-day life, students learn how to move forward. The goal of adventure programming is to challenge comfort zones in order to build self-confidence while also improving overall mental and physical health.

Trails Carolina Can Help

At Trails Carolina, we combine the power of the wilderness experience with a residential base camp in order to teach, reinforce and practice everyday, real-life skills. As students face the challenges of a wilderness therapy program, their perspective and behaviors begin to change. Wilderness therapy help teens develop key social and communication skills, as well as help build teen confidence and decrease the anxiety of social situations.

Each child that enters our campus is unique and brings their own needs and challenges. Immediately, we get to work making sure they receive the support they need, starting by introducing them to their single-gender, age-appropriate group they’ll be growing with.

These groups are led by experienced, licensed therapists who specialize in working with youth who fit their group’s profile – and it shows. We also work to keep parents engaged along this powerful journey, empowering them to support and communicate effectively with their child when they return home.

To find out more, call Trails today at 800-975-7303.

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