Young adulthood is full of opportunities to form new relationships, allow existing ones to evolve, and discover a healthy sense of self.
These opportunities prepare young adults to have diverse and fulfilling friendships throughout adulthood. But navigating lots of changing relationships can also lead to feelings of confusion or loneliness.
What is loneliness?
You might have heard the saying that it’s possible to feel lonely even in a crowded room. Loneliness isn’t about how many people we’re surrounded by – it’s about how connected we feel to the people in our lives. It might help to think about loneliness as a useful (if not uncomfortable!) feeling that lets us know our need for connection is not quite being met.
Loneliness and young adults
We often think of loneliness as something that increases as we age, but recent reports suggest that young adults are more likely to feel lonely than adolescents or other adults – and headspace's national youth mental health survey found that nearly two-thirds of young people feel lonely or left out. This might be related to common changes in young adulthood, like:
- Changes in circumstances – such as leaving school or starting a new job or starting at university/TAFE (especially when classes are online)
- Changes in habits – such as increased time online or developing new interests/hobbies
- Changes in relationships – such as relationship breakdown or not seeing friends daily at school
Young adults might also experience loneliness differently to older adults. Their loneliness might be accompanied by a sense of rejection or low self-esteem that comes from believing they have less friends than their peers. Social media can add to these feelings of isolation by showcasing other peoples’ social lives and friendships.
What you might see
Loneliness can be like a set of glasses we see the world through. This can lead to changes in your young person’s thoughts and behaviour. People who feel lonely are more likely to be critical of themselves and expect rejection. You might notice your young person:
- Avoiding social situations
- Increasing their use of social media
- Talking negatively about themselves – things like ‘they wouldn’t want me there anyway‘ or ‘they won’t notice if I don’t go‘
- Feeling dissatisfied with their relationships – lonely young adults might be more likely to believe that others don’t put as much effort into understanding or listening
- Showing signs of anxiety or depression, like losing interest in hobbies or worrying more than usual
The good news is that your young person’s feelings of loneliness can be helped if they have someone they can turn to for support. Here are some suggestions that might help:
It’s normal for young adults to look outside of their family for advice and connection, but research shows that young adults also want their parents to ask about things that matter to them. Simple questions can be a stepping stone to conversations about loneliness and well-being. Try questions like:
- ‘Have you caught up with [friend] lately? How are they going?‘
- ‘Have you got time for a coffee this weekend?‘
- ‘Has [friend] been posting much about their trip?‘
Spending meaningful time with people who matter to us is key to easing feelings of loneliness.
Supporting your young person to connect with new people might look like working together to find groups, sports teams, communities, or volunteering opportunities related to their interests or encouraging them to catch up with new friends.
Sometimes it might just be about spending some unstructured time with them doing something enjoyable or catching up for a weekly coffee.
A note on social media...
It’s often assumed that young adults’ feelings of loneliness are increasing due to social media use, but there's no clear evidence that social media use on its own is the cause of young adults’ loneliness. Instead, there are lots of factors at play, like friends investing in romantic relationships or going in different directions after leaving school, or the move to online university or TAFE.
This means that reducing social media use may not reduce loneliness. Scrolling through photos of friends hanging out or not being included in event invites may compound feelings of loneliness. On the other hand, social media can help connect young adults with new people and build supportive relationships that help ease feelings of loneliness.
If your young person’s social media use seems to be impacting their wellbeing, try to stay curious and talk about what you’ve noticed (jumping straight to talking about spending less time on their phone probably won’t help!). You might try saying something like:
- ‘I thought I saw your light still on when I got up to get a drink last night. How are you sleeping at the moment?‘
- ‘I noticed you found it hard to put down your phone and come to dinner the other night...what’s going on?‘
- ‘You’ve mentioned [online friend] a few times! How does it feel getting to know people online?‘
Talk about normal adult friendships and relationships
Seeing friends less often after finishing school can contribute to feelings of loneliness but feeling lonely can also make your young person less likely to reach out to friends. Taking steps to rebuild and maintain connections can help. You might try talking to your young person about:
- normal adult friendships – how it’s common and OK for them to ebb and flow, and how building new connections takes time
- how change and growth is an important part of life – and how it’s common for young adults to feel distant from friends as they grow and change.
- how people generally respond positively to reconnecting even if there hasn’t been contact in a while – if your young person has ‘lost touch’ with a friend they may feel hesitant about reaching out.
Navigating breakdowns in friendships or relationships may also take its toll on your young person’s feelings of connectedness. If it’s the right time, you can support them to:
- develop coping strategies – check out our 7 tips for a healthy headspace
- express their feelings in a healthy way
- gently encourage them to reflect on their understanding of the breakdown, if appropriate.
Encourage them to take steps
Taking steps towards rebuilding and maintaining connections can be difficult if low mood or social anxiety is keeping your young person feeling stuck. Loneliness can come with feelings of shame so it can be helpful to remind your young person that loneliness is a common feeling for people of many ages.
Taking positive steps takes courage but can make a positive difference. If it seems like they are having a hard time, encourage them to take steps towards easing feelings of loneliness and reach out for help.
Talking things through with a trusted person or professional, such as via eheadspace, can offer new perspectives and help your young person build confidence.
The headspace Clinical Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website.
Last reviewed 14th February 2023.
This content was developed in association with the Parenting Research Centre.
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