“I was an only child. I did have kind of like a lonely existence,” said the popular actor Robin Williams. True - being a single child can certainly bring in a feeling of isolation. It can be, at times, depressing too. And, in the case of teens, this feeling can get worse, as the adolescent mind finds it hard to manage the rapid transformations happening physically and mentally. So, how can parents help teens in beating these woes? Let’s take a closer look at this issue to find solutions.
What worries a single child?
Let’s begin with some scientific reasoning. First of all, we need to understand that the brain undergoes several changes during the teenage years. Therefore, a teenager has a lot of difficulty in reasoning out and solving problems. He might strongly feel that he is lonely and long for a sibling’s love and affection. This suggests that there is a lot of rumination within the emotional area. It points to the fact that the teen’s rely more on inputs from the amygdala, whereas adults use the frontal cortex.
Another problem is that, some parents keep minimising the whole issue by saying, “It is better you don’t have a sibling, because you don’t have to share anything.” When parents start doing this, they are not offering a solution to the problem.
Understanding a lonely teen
The key issue is not that the teenager doesn’t have a brother or a sister, but that he feels lonely. He probably feels that the loneliness can somehow be overcome by having a sibling. His plight might even be intensified on seeing siblings around him, who stand up for each other. This usually results in the lack of social skills and the inability to solve problems on his own. He expects a sibling in the form of a knight in shining armour to stand up for him.
We need to clearly understand that though a teenager appears to have many surface level issues, at the deeper level there are two core issues –lack of problem-solving skills and difficulty in emotional regulation. With such deep-lying issues, looking for an external solution will not work. The longing for a sibling is only a surface level expression. Children, especially teens, will never express anything directly. They will never say, “Look here, I’m lonely. Help me.”
Prescription to parents – How to deal with the issue
Remember, adolescence is more difficult for your teen than for you. He is going through a host of psychological and biological changes. It’s like an atom bomb exploding inside his head. So, you need to take the utmost care in dealing with his problem. Here are some tips:
- Do not offer your opinion or advice based on rational thinking. The teen brain will not be in a position to accept it.
- Ensure there is two-way communication. Sit down and talk to your teen. Help him give vent to his emotions. Get his perspective of the situation. Parents, generally, do not encourage teens to pour out their emotions. Give your teen the opportunity to do so.
- Help your teen come up with solutions by looking inward. Ask him, “What will make you feel less lonely?” Together, come up with steps to address his issue.
- Teach him to face reality. He should realise that nothing can change the situation of being a single child. Acceptance of the problem will go a long way in solving it.
- Be a parent. Do not take on the role of a friend. Your teen will not relate to you on that level.
- Find out what could be the reasons for your teen’s loneliness. It may be that he doesn’t have sufficient activities to engage himself in. In such a case, make sure you provide that for him. Encourage him taking up hobbies, enrolling in sports or music classes. Ensure you have a special family bonding time.
- Encourage him to establish healthy relationships with peers; during family gatherings, let him bond with cousins of his age.
- Above all, train your teen on problem-solving and social skills, so that he can cope on his own.
Every behavioural problem is only an unmet psychological need. In this case, the parent needs to address the psychological needof the teenager and not just say, “Hey listen we can’t have children; we have already got ourselves sterilised.” You cannot reason out with your teen. It will not work with an adolescent brain.
So, having a clear understanding of your teenager’s feelings, and responding to it with total concern and compassion is the only way you can help him beat his woes. Do this and let your child enjoy his teenage years blissfully, without worrying about being a single child.
Based on inputs from Aarti C Rajaratnam, a psychologist specialising in childhood and adolescent mental health, best-selling author and an innovative education design consultant.