Last year the media reported an uptick in loneliness — with all of its negative implications — among young people. Learning to be comfortable alone is an important life skill. It is often overlooked in parenting because there is such intense focus on interpersonal social skills development.
The skill of being comfortable alone connects to every person in the world. Many times in life, we will find ourselves alone. Being comfortable alone is not the same as feeling lonely.
This skill begins when kids are very young. One obstacle is that parenting has evolved to a point where kids have very little alone time. Time management starts early in a child's world today.
It requires nothing more than stepping back a bit
Parents want their child to develop the skills they will need to have a fulfilling life. There are book stores full of parenting books about how your child can successfully get along with others. However, finding a comfortable emotional space with being alone is a necessary life skill, as well.
The first step for any parent is to let go of some control over their child's life. Qualify that with the fact that safety for your child is a given. And watching a screen does not count as being alone and is not to be confused with ignoring a child.
Let's start at the beginning
At the toddler stage allowing your child to play alone fosters a more "curious, confident, and self-reliant kid." Play forms the basis of those first lessons in being alone. It is a time for skill development. At this stage, playing alone also encourages problem solving skills and imaginative play.
What does it look like when kids are very young? It could be parallel your own alone time. You are reading and your toddler is playing. You are in close proximity but each with your own activity. The intense parenting that exists today often means over programming for kids. Breathe out and let them be. Allowing them time to explore and create on their own begins to develop the skill of being comfortable alone. Resisting the urge to jump in when they get frustrated will be a challenge.
Pull out the crayons and paper, an activity book, or a toy they haven't seen for a while. Set parameters. Then let them explore. Over enthusiasm for too much alone time is not the goal either. But like most things in life a balanced approach is the best approach.
Why should we consider the skills of being alone?
Recent research answers that question. That all important capacity of resiliency grows as we learn to be comfortable alone. The importance of resiliency in a child's life today can never be overstated. It helps alleviate the constant need for others. It fosters independence and helps develop coping mechanisms for life's challenges. Those skills are increasingly necessary as your kids get older.
At the tween and teen stage, life revolves around equating success in life with their likes and friending on social media. It is a numbered and measurable commodity. As parents even we see our child's social success through friendships and invitations. But the irony of this intense social life is that recent research also suggests that loneliness peaks in adolescence.
If your child has been gradually gaining the skills to be comfortable alone then branch out a bit at this teen stage. This is the time to encourage a more advanced hobby or skill. There are many options: playing a musical instrument, healthy cooking, or any number of crafts offer productive alone time. With the explosion of kid and YA literature out there, reading can be a very rewarding solo activity. There are many opportunities for young writers too. Maybe encourage them to gear up to enter a youth writing competition.
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As the parent, you know your child best. What might you introduce them to as a solo activity? Maybe it is something you enjoy. Or maybe at an appropriate time, ask them what hobby might interest them. Most importantly for your tweens and teens, talk to them about what it takes to be comfortable alone.
In the long term
A Harvard study suggests we form more lasting memories when we experience something independently. Taking ownership of alone time can give a person a sense of freedom and control over their life.
Learning to be comfortable alone does not mean your child will never experience loneliness. But all the skills associated with this skill — resiliency, problem solving, creativity and curiosity — will be life-long cornerstones of their character. When times are tough, that alone' skill is one more defence in their emotional armour.
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