Avatar photo Ray Swann 5 min READ January 25th, 2024

Helping Boys Deal With Loneliness


By Dr Ray Swann

Loneliness is on the rise for boys, but the good news is that parents can ease this pain by nurturing the “thread” of connection.

I interviewed Daniel Petre, the author of Father Time: Making Time for Your Children, recently for my podcast, Understanding Boys. Daniel, a hugely successful technology and media executive, wanted quality time with his children but he knew that to build better relationships with them, his life would have to change.

Between us and our kids, Daniel told me, there is a thread.

If you pick it up and tug on it, he said, you need to know someone’s on the other end.

That’s true for both parents and kids. As a parent, I’ve often thought about this thread of connection, as we tend to feel what our kids feel. This can be so hard.

As our kids grow up, friendships become increasingly vital to psychological well-being. But the epidemic of loneliness for boys and men means we can’t take it for granted that this need for friendship will be fulfilled. We are seeing what people like Professor Niobe Way call a “crisis of connection.” Despite technology and social media, research suggests that up to 1 in 4 young men (<30) believe they have no close friends.[1]

This is a frightening statistic.

We know that loneliness is a public health issue[2]. There is growing evidence it is associated with depression and even can affect us physically. Compounding this for boys and young men is that they are less likely to ask for help, as the most common way of expressing maleness suggests that it is OK to be isolated and alone.

What can we do for our boys?

The answers are multilayered and vary for different ages. But being aware early means we can help our boys to develop “social fitness.” Social fitness is essentially the skills we apply to navigate social situations. As we get older, we need to update these skills to continue to develop positive relationships, being respectful of different needs and cultural contexts.

Most often, advice for loneliness focuses on joining interest groups or sporting clubs and these are fine ideas. But here are some other things to consider:

1. Enable “flexible thinking.” Empathy is at the heart of social fitness, I believe. We can help our boys consider different viewpoints. Flexible thinking means being open-minded and is often labeled as one of the primary “executive functioning” skills, the others being working memory and regulation of self and also tasks.

Flexible thinking is vital for social fitness because it helps us become more aware of how others perceive us and what their needs might be.

Here are three simple things you can do with your son:

2. Model social fitness and help-seeking. As our kids get older, we remain important role models and mentors to them. For boys, seeing and hearing stories about your own friendships and how you make relationships is powerful.

Here are some things to think about and practise:

3. Encourage small steps. When you feel isolated and lonely, it can feel like a cycle especially when you are seeing other people on social media leading these (often imaginary) amazing lives. For a boy or young man, it can be confusing when the message about success is that you are OK by yourself, but you crave intimate and loving connections. Change isn’t immediate. It happens with small steps.

Here are a few tips you could share with your son:

By engaging in active communication and practising attentive listening, you can deliberately enhance the bonds of connection. This, in turn, aids your son in understanding the dynamics of social connections and developing the skills to cultivate meaningful relationships with others.


This article was first published for in 2024