A trained and passionate musician, my practice is inspired by holistic and integrative theories that inform a practice that is expressed uniquely with each individual patient with whom I work. I am inspired to help others discover how to get creative and how to develop a voice which is integral to emotional development.
Bone-chilling loneliness is a phrase I’ve been thinking about recently in my NYC therapy practice as a way to categorize depression. I prefer the phrase because it gets to the heart of the lows that someone with depression feels. The term and diagnosis depression are so prevalent in both psychotherapy and popular culture that we’re almost not fazed anymore.
In many ways, the word depression seems too vague to fully capture the experience the way bone-chilling loneliness can. Bone-chilling loneliness is about the depression you feel in your bones, but you cannot verbalize or articulate. This physical sensation does not go away overnight.
Teens, in particular, strongly experience bone-chilling loneliness because so much is new to them. They have more responsibilities and more life changes–every three months might look completely different. Friendships might have drastic changes in one day. New academic challenges frequently come up. Not to mention the BIG life goals (college, jobs, sexuality, romantic relationships) are thrown at them as well. Sometimes teens, who are experiencing these changes at such an intense level, don’t know how to verbalize them, which can be increasingly alienating.
Teens and Bone-Chilling Loneliness
For teens experiencing bone-chilling loneliness, things seem bleak. Teens feel like they’re underwater in social situations or at school. Friends in the same room cannot be seen or heard, and time alone feels both relieving and increasingly painful.
For a teen, this chill might be painful all the time–in the morning, at night, at their SAT prep, in school or at their piano lessons. Their bones literally hurt and even, sleeping can hurt. I think this is sometimes how teens contemplate self-harm or suicide because that is the only way to see a way out or get relief from this intense loneliness.
Teens and feeling language–How to articulate and verbalize loneliness
Teens are still developing a language to express themselves and what they are experiencing. They sometimes can’t find the words to say, “I’m so lonely,” “I can’t connect with anyone–no one sees or hears me,” or “Everyone else seems fine and I’m not.” They feel these things, but are stuck trying to communicate until it becomes too acute.
In particular, teens have so many opportunities–in school, after-school activities or hanging out with friends–to fake or “be seen” socializing or connecting. They can pretend everything looks ok on the outside. But, it may be far from it internally; they don’t yet have the language for their internal dialogue or feelings.
Language is learned by practice. When kids are younger, they have charts of feelings, which helps the kid locate the face that corresponds to what they are feeling and the appropriate the word for it. I think teens need a verbal chart of sorts. They are smart, but they are still learning.
Bone-Chilling Loneliness for Teens Gets Better
An important step to help teens cope with bone-chilling loneliness is to simply say that teens are lonely. We talk a lot about college essays, college searches and extracurricular activities. We talk about teens transitioning, gender fluidity, sexuality and dating. But, we don’t talk about loneliness. Loneliness runs deep; it’s not a passing or shallow feeling.
In a way, the “It Gets Better Project” articulated something we need to do with loneliness. It can help teens to know they are allowed to feel lonely and others do too. Even if they are smiling or seem like they have it all together, many teens feel the same way. By talking about loneliness, it becomes normalized like any developmental process.
How Parents (And Other Adults) Can Normalize Bone-Chilling Loneliness In Teens
Parents–and other adults in a teen’s life–can sometimes unintentionally add to this loneliness by assuming their teens don’t need as much attention as they did when they were younger. Or that teens don’t want them around. Or just, assuming they know how their teens are or who they are.
Adults need to give space for all emotions even the ones that are inconvenient, uncomfortable, hard or painful. Getting to know a teen is to let them be emotional and letting them express the complexities of their emotions. Being a teen is fun, tricky, hard, painful, isolating and lonely. Teens may not know how to talk to adults and that is ok. Creating space to listen (where the parents’ anxiety or worry takes a back seat) can help ease this loneliness.
Loneliness can also be softened by asking questions and bugging teens in a soft way. How are adults contributing to a teen’s feeling of loneliness? Are you leading too much or getting in the way? Be curious without getting ego involved.
Therapy Can Help Teens With Bone-Chilling Loneliness
Therapy can help build a space where we can talk about bone-chilling loneliness together and go from there. It is amazing for teens to regularly see someone at the same time each week. That makes the world less lonely in itself.
The therapy room is a place where we can talk about this loneliness, as well as get close to a teen who is lonely. As odd as this might seem to the teen at first, it is good therapy to sit with a therapist who is ok with them feeling awkward, lonely, sad, nervous and isolated and won’t make them try to hide it. Therapy can also help parents and families talk about loneliness so it isn’t hidden. Loneliness can become less scary, overwhelming or inconvenient.
It is also helpful to have someone–a therapist–who is into exploring this loneliness without force. As a therapist, I can hang, talk and then, help teens talk about how they’re feeling. I might get there by talking about high school, a teen’s weekend upstate, music, philosophy, or books. In therapy, we build relationships together–we come up with ideas teens can try and way they can be in the world with less loneliness.