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Who isn’t lonely?

New studies add to our understanding of adolescent and parental loneliness

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Who isn’t lonely?

A year ago, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy declared an epidemic of loneliness in the country, pointing to data showing that approximately half of adults said they experienced “measurable levels of loneliness.” Many Americans still feel lonely, but, according to two new surveys, how that loneliness looks can change as we age. The surveys’ findings confirm what many have long suspected—Americans don’t just need more relationships, but deeper, more satisfying, and more consistent ones to feel less lonely.

In the first study, published last month by the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, researchers focused on parents. Although parents are rarely alone, a majority of those surveyed admitted to feeling anxiety, burnout, and social isolation as a result of mounting obligations. About 62 percent said they felt burnt out, and 66 percent said the demands of parenthood left them feeling isolated and lonely.

The number of respondents was not large—just 265 parents—but Kate Gawlik, associate clinical professor at the Ohio State University College of Nursing who studies parental burnout, said the subjects represented a cross section of American parents. Most were between 30 and 49 years old and earned enough income to belong in the middle or upper-middle class. Some were college educated; some were not. They lived in all corners of the country.

Parents, who experience near-constant company by living with children, might not generally lack social outlets. But Gawlik said the problem with parents isn’t finding people, it’s finding time.

“Parents have unique situations because they are constantly juggling and trying to balance multiple responsibilities, personalities, and life’s demands,” Gawlik told me in an email.

That juggling often requires parents to trade social events for domestic duties. Instead of Saturday nights out with friends, they’re tucking kids in and washing dishes alone.

Parents I spoke to agreed.

Erika Pereira Kim, a mother of three children in McLean, Va., says her full time job and the kids’ activities leave little time for adult connections. She starts her day at 5:30 a.m. After making breakfast and packing lunches for the kids, she and her husband leave for work. When she gets home, she’s jumping in the kitchen to make dinner by 7 p.m. After dinner, she tosses a load of laundry in the wash and by the end of the evening, she’s folding clothes in front of Netflix.

“There is no time. There is no more date night with three kids,” she said. “I never understood why people put everything in the calendar. But you must, because if you don’t, you’re not gonna find time to do anything.”

Pereira Kim said finding community has gotten harder after their family moved from downtown Washington, D.C., to the suburbs of northern Virginia. In the city, parents walked kids to school, and kids played in the streets. But out in the suburbs, streets are quiet.

“You pretty much just drive in and out, and you don’t have time to interact,” Pereira Kim said. “It’s really difficult, because it gets to a point, you look around, and you’re like, ‘I’m completely alone. You just come from work, and you go to your kitchen, cook and do things. But there isn’t somebody that you’re sharing with on a regular basis at all.”

Kelli Jo Smith, vice president of church engagement and marketing for MomCo, formerly MOPS International, said she’s noticed some mothers would “rather be lonely than take the risk of trusting people” and wonders if it’s an outgrowth of the COVID-19 pandemic, when daycares and schools shut down and parents isolated their children from other children.

Adults are hardly the only ones to feel this way. A Young Life survey of over 7,000 adolescents released last month pointed out that satisfaction in friendships and relationships tended to dip between the ages of 16 and 21. During those years, only 55 percent of teenagers said they were “content” with their friends and relationships. Researchers noted that respondents’ self-reported “sense of belonging” among friends dropped for ages 19-22.

While parents need relationships to support them through the daily grind, adolescents appear to need them to understand themselves. One of the more striking findings from the Young Life project was the fact that only 41 percent agreed to the statement, “I believe I am worthy of being loved.”

Arthur Satterwhite III, vice president of strategy at Young Life, said loneliness deprives adolescents not just of relationship, but of self-worth. “If I’m alarmed by anything, it’s this: 60 percent of you don’t know that you are loved,” Satterwhite said.

Smith, the MomCo representative, said that, as the busy parent of teenagers, she jokes about a friend who fought for just three minutes of Smith’s time. But it’s friends like those, what she calls “3 a.m. friends,” who are willing to cross uncomfortable boundaries, fight through busy schedules, and express needs for connection, that keep her from feeling lonely.

“Who are you going to call when you all of a sudden at 3 a.m. have to go to the hospital and you’re not going to think first, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m bothering them’?” Smith said. “That’s what you have to have in order to make it through.”

But friends may not be enough. Lydia Brownback, speaker and author of the book Finding God in My Loneliness, argues that the pangs of loneliness are symptoms of a deeper longing. She defined loneliness as “a sense of having to face yourself and your life.” She mentioned retirees questioning life’s purpose after career and children, prison inmates examining their hearts after being stripped of life’s comforts, and Christians questioning their faith after a crisis.

“Suddenly, you’re left with yourself, and if that doesn’t have richness to it, that’s a pivotal time to say, ‘What are you going to do about it?’” Brownback said.

Lonely people may have friends, she said, but they need to be reminded that they matter as individuals. Admitting you’re lonely is a first step, though that can be tough, especially in a church setting. Brownback recommends several ideas for Christians to bridge the gap towards more meaningful connection—church membership, greeting at least one new person, and getting past small talk.

“Don’t just start telling them about our church. Ask them about who they are, meet them where they are, and find out one thing about them to relate to, that they feel recognized, seen and cared about,” she said. “It does sound cliche, but it’s amazing how far that goes.”

Juliana Chan Erikson

Juliana is a correspondent covering marriage, family, and sexuality as part of WORLD’s Relations beat. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Juliana resides in the Washington, D.C., metro area with her husband and three children.

Thank you for your careful research and interesting presentations. —Clarke

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