The Damaging Effects of Social Isolation
No teen is an island
Teen culture is social by nature; young people tend to move around in groups. So a teen who is isolated—by chance or choice—is at a distinct disadvantage and is often treated as an outcast. The effects of isolation on a teenager can be long lasting and create a problem that parents need to address. The first step to solving this problem is understanding what causes it.
Teens Say “Leave Me Alone”
Teens may choose to isolate themselves or it may happen as a result of bullying or exclusion by their peers. Here are some of the common reasons for isolation:
- Isolation can be caused by the way they look, dress, act, or a combination of all these factors.
- Some teenagers may be ostracized by their classmates because they may either excel academically or underachieve. Fitting in is important to adolescents; those who stand out may be pushed to the fringes of social groups.
- Moodiness and erratic or volatile behavior can drive teens away from each other.
- Certain conditions such as Asperger’s syndrome and ADHD are characterized by social weaknesses that can lead to social isolation.
- Depression is another prime cause of isolation. A depressed teen loses interest in everyday activities and drops out of social groups at school.
- In some cases, a teen may spend too much time on social networking sites and lose touch with peers. He may replace genuine social interaction with chat rooms and conversations with strangers.
- Shyness can be a cause of social isolation in teens.
Isolation Hits Hard
Isolation affects teenagers in a number of different ways and with varying degrees of severity. Think about your teen and consider the possible ways that a lack of social interaction and acceptance can harm your child:
- A lack of peer support can mean teens struggle to process the dramas of their adolescent years. Stacey withdrew into herself, embarrassed by her crooked teeth and the teasing that resulted from them. When she needed a friend to do a geography project with, she couldn’t find one; this made her feel even worse.
- Depression is a Catch-22; it can cause isolation but may also come from a lack of social interaction. It’s important to differentiate between these if you seek professional treatment for your teen. For example, Jack was depressed when his attempts to fit in with the guys in his class always backfired. They were sports-minded, whereas he was more artistic and musical. He was mocked by the boys and eventually stopped hanging out with them. Over a period of months, he slumped into a deep depression.
- Teens who interact online lose out on genuine social interaction. Miles was a computer geek who spent hours chatting to strangers online. After months of this, his social skills were under-developed and his understanding of face-to-face interaction was marred by hours of Internet use.
- Casey was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at age 9. She had a particular interest in horses; her peers found her incessant talk about them boring. They eventually left her out of social activities, which made her feel socially clumsy and unwanted.
Parents Can Help Isolated Teens
Teens may end up in a situation where they struggle to help themselves. If you see this happening, get involved and encourage your child to take positive action to overcome her problems. In the situations mentioned above, parents intervened in the following ways:
- Stacey’s parents saw she was withdrawn. When she couldn’t find a friend to help with the geography project, they sat down with her and asked her what was wrong. They made a plan to get her teeth straightened. As Stacey’s confidence grew, her social life began to improve.
- Jack’s parents took him to a doctor for a physical check-up and assessment of his depressed state. The doctor ruled out biological depression and suggested Jack join some clubs where he would meet teens with similar interests. Within months he was part of a group that painted backdrops for theatrical productions, and he joined a teen band. He eventually had to limit his social life, as he was too busy.
- Miles’ parents took firm action and told their son they would limit his Internet use if he didn’t make more effort to interact face to face with his peers. Miles was angry and reluctant to do so but eventually looked up some old friends. They were willing to spend time with him. Miles soon realized the value of genuine social contact.
- Casey’s parents had taken a proactive approach with her since her diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome. When her adolescent peers shunned her, they arranged for a therapist to help her acquire social skills. Casey persevered and managed to make a couple of friends who understood her difficulties.
Never underestimate the effects of isolation on a teenager. With the right kind of help and support, most young people can improve their social lives. The skills they learn as teens will stand them in good stead when they enter the workplace and have to interact with people of all ages.
Debbie Roome is an award-winning freelance writer and mom to five children; two of them are teens.