How To Talk To A Parent, Sibling, Or Friend You Think Might Be Lonely
Though loneliness has been a human issue forever, modern loneliness is endemic among both old and young in societies worldwide. The issue is so pervasive that the UK government launched a landmark scheme to tackle loneliness nationally in 2018. But if you think somebody you know might be lonely, knowing how to talk to them about it can be tough. Being lonely is still seen as a taboo thing, and we often lack the right vocabulary to talk about it.
A third of people in the UK expressed loneliness in a survey in 2018, and in 2019, a survey in the U.S. revealed 47 percent of respondents experienced feelings of loneliness. It's not confined to any age, either; millennials are lonelier than previous generations, according to a study in 2018. Studies show that loneliness may partially be caused by the isolation of relationships conducted via social media and the risk of burnout at work. Many of us are also experiencing the loneliness of cities; as humans live in ever-more crowded metropolises in the 21st century, we also become increasingly separate from others. “You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour [sic] to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people,” writes critic and artist Olivia Laing in The Lonely City.
If you notice somebody close to you appears to be feeling isolated, here's how to have a conversation about it without making them angry, defensive, or feel more isolated.
1. Take It Slow
A conversation about somebody else's loneliness, even if it's somebody you're really close to, can feel awkward and raise issues. "Be patient," Age UK, an organization focused on the elderly (who are particularly vulnerable to loneliness), advises. "When people are lonely, particularly if it's associated with poor mental health or physical health, they may get irritable or feel misunderstood by others. You may need to offer gentle assurance." This is not a condemnation or an intervention; it's an expression of concern, and it may take a few conversations before they're willing to talk about how they're feeling.
2. Use A Meal As An Opportunity To Talk
Using meals as a gateway to start this discussion is particularly recommended around major holidays, where lonely people can feel isolated and opportunities for food and shared meals are common. "Why not demonstrate that you're thinking about someone by making them a delicious meal?" wrote Sabrina Barr for The Independent in 2018. This will not only build closeness into your relationship, it'll also offer an opportunity to talk about their loneliness and what they need as you prepare food or share it together.
3. Speak From A Place Of Empathy
People who are lonely don't just need to "buck up" or "get themselves out there." Talking down to lonely people, particularly if they have challenges that mean they can't socialize very much — an illness, a caretaker role, shyness or mobility issues — isn't going to help. "The use of an infantilising [sic] voice is more often than not experienced as disrespectful and humiliating, and can bring about a self-fulfilling prophecy," says the UK's Campaign To End Loneliness.
4. Include Them in Bigger Events
Invite your parent, sibling, or friend to come to a big social occasion that will prompt them to feel a little less isolated, and then see if you can have some one-on-one time; in the light of their recent social interactions at your party or get-together, they may feel more relaxed about talking about their loneliness in general. It's a double whammy; it helps lonely people feel more connected to others, and also offers a venue to chat where they might feel a bit more cheerful.
5. Come From A No-Judgement Point Of View
Just as you wouldn't offer judgment on a sick friend, you can help your loved one talk about loneliness without bringing up individual choices. "A warm, non-judgemental [sic] acceptance of the other person as whatever they are in that given moment during your helping relationship with them" is necessary when you're dealing with their loneliness, the Campaign To End Loneliness says. "[Understand] that confronting painful feelings and changing their behaviour [sic] in some way can be a big step and a daunting challenge." Focus on their feelings and how they're choosing to express them, not your judgement of their situation.
6. Don't Be Afraid To Talk About The Real Stuff
A survey of lonely American adults in 2018, TIME magazine reported, focused particularly on "meaningful relationships." People who were lonely, the survey noted, had something in common: they said they had fewer people with whom they could “discuss matters of personal importance.” If you want to have a conversation with a lonely friend or family member, it may help to make time to hear about their life in general, and build meaning into your relationship.
Focus on being an empathetic listener. What are their day-to-day worries? What's personally important to them? Creating or strengthening a meaningful relationship means you'll have a better basis to talk about their loneliness, and they'll be more likely to feel comfortable talking about it.
7. Let Them Guide The Conversation
You're ready to have a big conversation about loneliness — but let your loved one take charge. "Facilitate a conversation about loneliness, using the skills and qualities of empathy, openness, warmth and respect, and help people to understand their own circumstances and plan their own solutions," recommends the Campaign To End Loneliness. You might have an idea or a thousand about things they could do to improve their loneliness — join a club! Learn a new skill! — but, the Campaign says, it's better to let them take agency over the conversation (and what results from it).
It's also valuable not to make assumptions about what they want; young moms might not want to do lots of stuff to do with motherhood or children, for instance. "We try and remove limits and expectations about roles and interests," says the Campaign.
Loneliness can be a hard thing to battle — but a friend or family member who really wants to help is a valuable asset. Take on the job diplomatically, and you might be able to make a real difference for a lonely person.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.