A mother walks with her child who is ahead in the distance

Family Health

The Health Risk Of Loneliness And How To Tackle It During The Parenting Years

Apr 27, 2018

With the churning social wheel of family and work life 24/7, it’s hard to believe that parents could ever feel lonely. Or is it?

According to the 2016 census, for the first time in our history, the one-person household is the most common living arrangement in Canada. Almost one-quarter of all citizens say they have no confidantes.

What Is Loneliness?

Loneliness is an emotion of feeling distressed or anxious due to a perceived lack of connection with others. John Cacioppo, an expert on the subject, refers to it as “social pain.”

According to Julianne Holt-Lunstad, another researcher, loneliness has three aspects:

  1. Structural — the presence or absence of others.
  2. Functional — what relationships do for us.
  3. Quality — the positive or negative dimensions of relationships.

When there is an absence of relationships, or existing relationships don't fulfill their function (e.g., friend) or relationships are experienced as negative, loneliness can take root.

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Parents And Loneliness

Research by Action for Children, a U.K. charity committed to helping children in need, reported that 52 per cent of parents stated that they had feelings of loneliness, with one-fifth reporting loneliness during the past week. And 68 per cent of parents stated that they felt “cut off" from friends and family since having children.

A confluence of factors can lead to feelings of loneliness — these include: social isolation resulting from parental leave; postpartum mental health issues in either parent; exhaustion or sleep deprivation of early parenting; misalignment about parenting values and behaviours with friends and family; the social pressure to be the “perfect” parent; financial problems (so, fewer resources to spend on socializing) and a shrinking social network.

Why Is Loneliness Unhealthy?

Loneliness and low numbers of social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

People are social beings and when we are not physically around others, it can compromise everything from our heart health, immunity, cognitive functioning and stress hormone (cortisol) levels. Sustained loneliness can lead to mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression.

How Does Social Connection Keep Us Healthy?

Being with others in the same room reinforces regular daily routines and healthy coping habits, provides us with social support, provides meaning, enjoyment and keeps our stress levels down. Not being around others can lead to less healthy ways of coping, such as drinking, overeating and leading a sedentary lifestyle.

Fortunately, besides realizing that most parents feel lonely at times, there are many steps we can take to tackle loneliness.

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7 Tips For Losing Loneliness

  1. Become aware and name that you feel lonely. Write down your thoughts and feelings and try to discover the gaps in your social experience.
  2. Gain perspective. Consider how our changing social structures enable loneliness. Due to things like later marriage, divorce, geographical moves for work and education, people often find themselves at loose ends socially, many times in life. Be kind to yourself and know that there is nothing wrong with you.
  3. Plan, socially, for life changes. When planning a move to a new city or job, plan not only financially and logistically but also socially. Such planning will help you and your family land on solid ground with social support.
  4. Make socializing a priority. There is no substitute for developing and sustaining ties, even if they are bite-sized (think 10-minute conversations with a friend). Other ways to focus on socializing is by volunteering, joining a personal interest group or a sports team.
  5. Use social media wisely. Nobody on their deathbed ever wished they had spent more time on social media. Make an effort to meet people in person to improve relationships and satisfaction as well as boost optimal health benefits of relationships.
  6. Make good use of “me time.” Just as it is essential to connect with others, it’s important to spend some of our alone time connecting with ourselves, be that through nature, hobbies or in mindfulness practice to feel comfortable and benefit from healthy solitude.
  7. Cultivate gratitude. Taking stock and being grateful for the connections and relationships in our lives creates the confident, open mindset that makes new connections more likely to happen.

The key is for parents to feel less alone in having the experience of loneliness and to take steps to connect. If it takes a village to raise a child, the first step to creating that village is to literally break the "ice-olation." It can be as simple as a smile, a greeting, making eye contact or reaching out by phone or e-mail to those around us. Chances are, you’ll be glad you did.

Article Author Dr. Nasreen Khatri
Dr. Nasreen Khatri

Read more from Dr. Nasreen Khatri here.

Dr. Nasreen Khatri is a trustee with The Psychology Foundation of Canada. Dr. Khatri is an award-winning registered clinical psychologist, gerontologist and researcher who specializes in the assessment, treatment and research of mood and anxiety disorders in older adults at the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest in Toronto. She studies how depression impacts the aging brain, the neural link between depression in mid-life and the subsequent onset of dementia and she innovates non-drug treatments for depression and anxiety in older adults. She is also a member of The Psychology Foundation of Canada’s Workplace Committee that developed Stress Strategies, an evidence-based, online tool for stress management. Follow The Psychology Foundation on Twitter and Instagram.

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