The Effects of Childhood Loneliness

Leo Tolstoy said that "Childhood loneliness is like a sword that wounds the heart of a child". And he was right, loneliness in childhood is a springboard to disease. In this article, we explain why.
The Effects of Childhood Loneliness
Gorka Jiménez Pajares

Written and verified by the psychologist Gorka Jiménez Pajares.

Last update: 19 March, 2023

You might think that loneliness is exclusive to adults. However, many children feel extremely lonely, despite being surrounded by other infants. For them, loneliness is a distressing emotion that prevents them from feeling good and moving forward.

One definition of this emotion is ‘the difference between the levels of relatedness and connection with others, what we perceive and what we want’ (Perlman et al., 1981). Loneliness, like any human experience, also ‘touches’ and overwhelms the coping resources of children, making them more vulnerable to significant clinical entities such as depression.

“Childhood loneliness is an evil that has no name and that kills the soul little by little.”

-Gabriel Garcia Marquez-

Childhood loneliness

Children are often surrounded by other infants at school, in the park, or even at other children’s birthday parties. But, despite their wealth in terms of social contacts, they can feel extremely lonely. Indeed, the fact that they’re in contact with others far from saves them from such feelings. After all, it’s well known that perceived loneliness can coexist in individuals with rich social environments. (Cacciopo et al, 2006).

The period of life that demarcates childhood and adolescence is plagued with changes, some of them quite profound. For example, the fact that children and adolescents have to change schools as they get older can modify or influence their entire interactive context. In fact, changes of this type can become factors that increase their risk of being imprisoned by loneliness.

“Childhood loneliness is the greatest sadness that can exist in the world, because it is the sadness of an innocent being.”

-Ernest Hemingway-

Kids ignore girl who sits alone in school hallway
Going to a new school can affect a minor’s interaction with their peers.

Why do some children feel extremely lonely?

Children, adolescents, and adults alike feel lonely at times. It’s a part of life. As a matter of fact, research has discovered that around three to four out of ten children up to the age of 15 feel lonely (Yange et al. 2020).

Girls experience this emotion more frequently and intensely than boys. In addition, the perception of this uncomfortable emotional state increases in the following cases (Xerxa et al., 2021):

  • Having a disability.
  • Having a mother with depression.
  • Being bullied or having arguments with other children.
  • Preferring virtual relationships, instead of physical ones.
  • Having a different sexual orientation than the norm.
  • Having parents with depression, anxiety, and/or substance abuse.

For these reasons, and for those that we’ll explain below, childhood loneliness has come to the public arena. In fact, apart from having a considerable impact on mental well-being, it’s a potent risk factor for physical illness. Therefore, in order to be able to help children who suffer from loneliness, we must know how to identify them.

“No child should feel alone in this world, for loneliness is a poison that eats away at the heart.”

-JK Rowling-

The effects of childhood loneliness

Experiencing loneliness often increases the risk of also suffering from various clinical entities. Research conducted on childhood loneliness suggested a specific pairing, of social anxiety and depression (Maes et al., 2019).

Moreover, we know that individuals who perceive this emotion more frequently are more likely to die early, regardless of how much money they earn, the education they have, their sex, or their ethnicity. This is due to the influence that loneliness exerts on the following parameters (Yang et al. 2016):

  • Hypertension.
  • Inflammation mediated by C-reactive protein.
  • Increased body mass index and waist circumference.

“The magnitude of this effect is comparable to that of smoking and obesity or physical inactivity.”

-Yllza Xerxa-

When lonely children grow up, their loneliness can become chronic and they might experience psychiatric symptoms. Signs of anxiety or substance abuse, together with depression, are the most frequently detected groups of clinical entities in these cases.

On the other hand, childhood loneliness means that the psychiatric symptoms described can influence an individual’s emotional and psychological universe throughout their lives (Xerxa et al., 2021). Loneliness is also related to suicidal ideation (Goodfellow et al., 2023).

Alone girl in the woods
Children who feel lonely are more prone to disorders such as depression.

How to help lonely children

It’s vital to create, develop, and implement interventions that have the child’s functioning at school at their core. The objective is to alleviate the negative effects that this emotion has when it’s not merely occasional, but chronic. For example, promoting a greater bond with the school context would be a protective factor against potential loneliness.

These interventions should also take into account the role played by the family. In fact, families that support their children, in terms of the loneliness they experience, promote their psychological well-being. In this sense, adequate communication and a good ability to empathize with children are key.

As you can see, loneliness is an emotion with the potential to have a devastating effect on the minds of infants. The school educational psychologist is particularly helpful in cases of childhood loneliness. Programs that promote interaction with other children, as well as various cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques, counteract the effects of this emotion such as depression, anxiety, and even suicide.

“Childhood loneliness is the darkest night that can be in the soul of a child, but love is the star that can guide it.”

-Victor Hugo-

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Cacioppo, J. T., Hawkley, L. C., Ernst, J. M., Burleson, M., Berntson, G. G., Nouriani, B., & Spiegel, D. (2006). Loneliness within a nomological net: An evolutionary perspective. Journal of Research in Personality, 40(6), 1054–1085. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2005.11.007.CrossRef
  • Goodfellow, C., Willis, M., Inchley, J., Kharicha, K., Leyland, A. H., Qualter, P., Simpson, S., & Long, E. (2023). Mental health and loneliness in Scottish schools: A multilevel analysis of data from the health behaviour in school-aged children study. The British journal of educational psychology, 10.1111/bjep.12581. Advance online publication.
  • Maes, M., Nelemans, S. A., Danneel, S., Fernández-Castilla, B., Van den Noortgate, W., Goossens, L., & Vanhalst, J. (2019). Loneliness and social anxiety across childhood and adolescence: Multilevel meta-analyses of cross-sectional and longitudinal associations. Developmental Psychology, 55(7), 1548. doi: 10.1037/dev0000719
  • Perlman, D., & Peplau, L. A. (1981). Toward a social psychology of loneliness. In Gilmour, R & Duck, S (Eds), Personal relationships 3: Personal relationships in disorder (pp. 31–56). London: Academic Press.
  • Xerxa, Y., Rescorla, L. A., Shanahan, L., Tiemeier, H., & Copeland, W. E. (2023). Childhood loneliness as a specific risk factor for adult psychiatric disorders. Psychological Medicine, 53(1), 227-235.
  • Yang, K., Petersen, K. J., & Qualter, P. (2020). Undesirable social relations as risk factors for loneliness among 14-year-olds in the UK: Findings from the millennium cohort study. International Journal of Behavioral Development, doi:0165025420965737.
  • Yang, Y. C., Boen, C., Gerken, K., Li, T., Schorpp, K., & Harris, K. M. (2016). Social relationships and physiological determinants of longevity across the human life span. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(3), 578–583. doi:10.1073/pnas.1511085112.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.