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Darlene Taylor On How We Can Solve The Loneliness Epidemic Among Young People

An interview with Pirie Jones Grossman

Our youth are facing a loneliness epidemic like never before. They have “social” media, but many are lacking healthy social lives. Many have likes and virtual “friends” but not real live friends. They can text and tweet but not speak and listen and connect. And they are feeling it. Humans were made for real live interaction, and we crave it when we don’t get it, or don’t even know how to go about looking for connection. How can we solve this loneliness epidemic that young people face? As a part of our interview series about the ‘5 Things We Can Each Do Help Solve The Loneliness Epidemic Among Young People ’ we had the pleasure to interview Darlene Taylor.

Darlene has over 20+ years of experience counseling people through self-discovery, growth, and education. She earned her Master’s in Social Work from the University of Cincinnati and spent more than ten years as a licensed social worker and therapist. Darlene recently published her first book, “It’s Not About Us: A Co-parenting Survival Guide for Taking the High Road” which is part memoir, part survival guide that gives parents 15 hard-won wisdoms she learned through her own co-parenting journey.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us? What was it that led you to your eventual career choice?

I grew up in Anchorage, Alaska in a military family and am the youngest of three. I was an interesting cross between a nerdy bookworm and an extroverted athlete, which I’d say is still an accurate description. I knew from an early age that I would work with children and be in some kind of helping profession, and my very first job was as a birthday hostess at Chuck E. Cheese. I figured if could survive that summer and still love working with kids, every other job would be easy.

My life path has taken me to ten different states, and a host of different jobs, all of them in some way helping people be the best versions of themselves. I earned my master’s degree in social work from UC and since then have worked as a child abuse investigator, domestic violence victim’s advocate, special education teacher, personal trainer, therapist, adjunct professor, and diversity consultant and eventually landed me where I am now working as a life and parenting coach and co-parenting advocate.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

There have been so many different chapters of my career, so it’s hard to choose just one story. I will share something I learned very early in my career about the resiliency of children. When I was in graduate school, I did my field placement at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. I split my time there between the Cardiac Care Unit and the Intensive Care Unit, so I was often working with the families of very sick children or who were dealing with trauma. Early on in my placement, I worked with the family of a ten-year-old girl who had been in an ATV accident that resulted in the amputation of one of her legs. This was particularly devastating because even at ten, she was already an accomplished gymnast. They had high hopes of one day competing in the Olympics and so her life really revolved around gymnastics and the whole family was invested. I met with her parents who were grief-stricken and extremely worried about how this would negatively affect their daughter. For much of our first session, they were inconsolable, and I was expecting their daughter to be in a similar emotional state.

But when I went into her room, I was greeted by a perky, smiling girl who was eager to talk to me. At first, I was concerned that she did not understand what had happened, the gravity of her injury, and how it would change her life, but after talking to her, it was clear that she did. When we talked about what this would mean for her gymnastics career, she simply said, “I was going to get an Olympic gold medal, now I will just have to get one at the Special Olympics.” She had so quickly been able to digest what happened and shift her focus to a new reality and I was floored. She also expressed how worried she was about her parents. She said that she didn’t want them to be disappointed or upset because she had found a new dream and was going to be okay.

It was a great example of how we as adults can get so caught up in what we have lost, that we can’t see a way forward, while kids adjust and find the good in whatever their new reality is. I have never forgotten that lesson and try to remember it when I find myself fighting change or focusing on what I’ve lost instead of the new something beautiful that can come from that loss.

It has been said that sometimes our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?

When I was just starting as a therapist at a university counseling center, I was very eager to help as many people as I could and tried to fill my calendar with clients each day. On this particular day, I was extremely proud of myself because I had my entire eight-hour day booked with back-to-back appointments. The day started great but by the third appointment, I began to get hungry. Even though the sessions were only supposed to last 50 minutes, often I would lose track of the time and the session would run right until the next one was to begin. Which is exactly what happened that day. By the time my fifth client arrived, I realized I had made a terrible mistake by not scheduling any kind of break for myself. Not only was my stomach growling incredibly loudly, but because I had been drinking water all day my bladder was screaming. But there was no time to take a bathroom break. Between my hunger and bladder, I am not sure how I managed to focus on my clients for those last few hours, but I made it through the sessions without incident. I couldn’t run fast enough to the restroom after my last session was over and I knew that would definitely be the last day I ever scheduled my day without a break. I was so eager to help that I overlooked the fact that if I don’t take care of myself, I can’t help anyone else. Even as a therapist, I had to be reminded of the importance of self-care.

I learned that I did not have to be a superhero to be a good therapist. I was human and that was okay. I’m sure any client would have been happy to give me a minute for a bathroom break, but I was too stubborn to ask. I learned that if I really wanted to do the best job for my clients, I needed to take good care of myself. They deserved to have me at my best and starving with a full bladder was definitely not my best!

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Currently, most of my energy has been focused on promoting my first book, It’s Not About US: A Co-parenting Survival Guide to Taking the High Road. The book was released in November, and it is the story of my journey through co-parenting after divorce in a way that was healthy for my daughter and kept her at the center of all our decisions. My goal with the book was to provide hope to parents that co-parenting does not have to be toxic and that you can find a way to redefine your family in a way that supports all its members. I know so many families deal with the challenge of co-parenting and there are so many stories about dysfunctional co-parenting, but I wanted to show people another way.

I am very excited about promoting the book and doing speaking engagements about co-parenting. I’m thrilled that the book has reached a wider audience than I ever anticipated and groups other than divorced parents have found value in my message. I was recently asked to speak to a group of attorneys about their role in helping families stay on the high road as they navigate divorce and co-parenting, and it made me proud to know that the people who support co-parenting families can also get something meaningful from my book.

Can you share with our readers a bit about why you are an authority on the topic of ‘The Loneliness Epidemic Among Young People’?

I feel like I have had a front-row seat, especially in the past few years. For about 3 years before I left Cincinnati, I worked at a counseling center where a large portion of my clients were children and young adults. The vast majority of them were dealing with depression and anxiety and almost all of them talked to me about being lonely and feeling disconnected. It was a theme that I saw even among many of the adults I worked with, and it leaves people feeling pretty hopeless.

I would say what has really made me an authority is watching my daughter navigate the pandemic right on the heels of a cross-country move just before starting middle school. As we all remember, middle school is ridiculously challenging under the best of circumstances, but my kiddo was faced with leaving all of her friends in the only place she’d ever lived and moving to the huge city of LA right before starting 7th grade. And just when she started to feel a tiny bit grounded, the world shut down. She had barely had time to make any real connections with friends and found herself stuck in the house with her mom, feeling a million miles away from everything that made her life feel normal. It was awful for her and, as a parent, just heartbreaking to watch. Spending the last three years helping her navigate her feelings of loneliness and make new connections here, as well as dealing with my own feelings of loneliness and isolation has, in a way, forced me to become an expert.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. According to this story in the New York Times, loneliness is becoming an increasing health threat not just in the US, but across the world. Can you articulate for our readers 3 reasons why being lonely and isolated can harm one’s health?

Loneliness and isolation can be detrimental to your physical health because it causes your body to produce an excess of the stress hormone cortisol, which can weaken your immune system, cause impairments in your cognitive functioning, and increase your risk for heart disease.

Additionally, loneliness increases your risk of serious mental health conditions, particularly clinical depression. We know that depression can often lead to insomnia, memory problems, and fatigue, all of which negatively affect your physical health. Loneliness has also been linked to higher incidences of anxiety and suicide.

An often-overlooked way that loneliness can affect one’s health is that it increases the likelihood of using alcohol and drugs as a coping mechanism. It can be very difficult to find healthy coping strategies when you are feeling isolated, so misuse and overuse of substances can feel like a solution but can have dire effects on both your physical and mental health.

Based on your experience or research, are children impacted differently than adults by the loneliness epidemic? How?

Research is telling us that young people experience loneliness much more intensely than adults, possibly because of where they are developmentally. For young people, peer relationships and connections are vital to their identity formation and help them define their sense of self. When there is a lack of connection or perceived lack of connection, their feelings of self-worth are negatively affected, increasing their risk of things like depression and anxiety.

In addition, children typically have not developed the coping skills many adults have, so they have fewer internal resources to deal with feelings of loneliness. Since they are not as equipped to handle those feelings, they are more prone to choosing maladaptive coping strategies like substance abuse.

As humans, we are social creatures, we crave connection, and this need is especially strong for children and teens. Peer interactions and friendships are crucial for a child’s development so loneliness can be much more problematic for them than it is for adults.

On a broader societal level, in which way is loneliness among our youth harming our communities and society?

Because of the growing disconnection many of our young people are feeling, we are seeing youth who are dealing with a higher incidence of depression and social anxiety, which can make them less likely to engage with others in both the short and the long term. This disengagement and isolation are creating a generation of children who are lacking some of the social skills needed to build successful peer relationships compared to previous generations. With fewer social skills, many kids have difficulty connecting in a meaningful way and this difficulty connecting can cause them to withdraw further. So now we are potentially left with an entire generation of young adults who don’t really know how to connect with each other in authentic ways or foster relationships, which creates more loneliness, so the cycle continues. And this cycle affects interpersonal relationships with friends and family, as well as work relationships, and all other places where people would normally interact with one another. Looking longer term, this lack of connection could potentially change our societal definitions of what community means, with far less focus on connectedness and interdependence where isolation is the norm. If it takes a village to raise healthy children and communities, the loneliness epidemic is shrinking that community drastically and that has the potential to be extremely damaging to society.

The irony of having a loneliness epidemic is glaring. We are living in a time where more people are connected to each other than ever before in history. Our technology has the power to connect billions of people in one network, in a way that was never possible. Yet despite this, so many people are lonely. Why is this? Can you share 3 of the main reasons why our young people are facing a loneliness epidemic today? Please give a story or an example for each.

When we hear about loneliness in young people, the first thing most of us think about as a culprit is social media. If you have been around a tween or teen of any length of time, you likely see the tops of their heads more than you see their faces. It is not that social media in and of itself is the problem, but its overuse has caused relationships between young people to become much more superficial. Many of them have a hard time making genuine, real-world connections which can lead to social anxiety, causing them to withdraw even further. So, the cycle continues. It is crazy to watch this unfold in real time, as I did on a recent visit to my daughter’s school. There was a group of girls standing together who were obviously friends, but none of whom looked up from their phones for at least five minutes. After watching them for a while, I realized that they were actually communicating with each other on their phones even though they were standing right in front of each other! They seemed so much more comfortable on their phones than talking directly to each other and I couldn’t help but think about how much quality engagement they were missing, even though there right beside each other.

Because of the use of technology and the ability to reach people almost instantly, bullying has taken on a new and more dangerous meaning. A great deal of bullying and social shaming happens using social media and this can create feelings of alienation and cause children to withdraw. Bullying can destroy a child’s self-confidence and that lack of self-confidence often makes them avoid social situations for fear of being judged or not accepted by others. When there are social struggles like these for kids and teens, loneliness can feel daunting and lead to depression and further isolation. Isolation becomes a way to protect themselves so you may see a child who used to love going to school now losing interest or asking to stay home sick frequently.

I don’t think we can have a conversation about loneliness in 2023 without acknowledging how the COVID pandemic affected all of us, especially young people. Loneliness among children was an issue before the pandemic, but the forced isolation magnified the already brewing issue of children being less socially connected than previous generations for kids who were prone to shyness, introversion, or social anxiety, the pandemic was the perfect opportunity to draw even further away from peers without the normal opportunities like school or activities that would have forced them to socialize and connect pre-pandemic. The stress of forced separation was felt acutely among our young people, and we are beginning to really see the toll it has taken on both their mental and physical health.

As I mentioned earlier, I saw this firsthand with my daughter. Since we had just moved across the country six months before the initial shutdown, she really had not had much chance to establish close friendships. When her school closed, the sole outlet for her to try to connect and make develop those friendships was taken away. I watched as her feelings of loneliness and isolation grew and felt helpless. Even for children who may not have felt lonely pre-pandemic, the stay-at-home orders and shutdowns took away the primary outlets for the interaction that is so crucial for their development. As the pandemic wore on, the separation from friends and extended family began to take its toll, leading to feelings of depression for many, which made them withdraw even more.

Children are still learning how to build substantive friendships, so when the lockdowns removed the opportunity to interact face-to-face, some of their friendships suffered. Even though they may have been gaming or chatting on social media, they were not connecting and that just served to amplify those feelings of loneliness.

What signs would you tell parents, friends, or loved ones to look for in young people they think may need help? Can you please explain?

If you think your child may be suffering because of loneliness and isolation, it’s important to pay attention to changes in their normal behavior. They may be losing interest in things they used to enjoy or not wanting to participate in activities about which they were previously excited. You might also see changes in their sleep patterns, either sleeping more or having insomnia or changes in their eating patterns, like over or undereating. A tell-tale sign is if you find that they are not only withdrawing from friends but also family, spending a lot of time alone, or refusing to eat or participate in regular family activities.

There might also be physical and emotional manifestations of their stress. Children may complain of frequent headaches or stomach aches or say that they want to stay home from school because they are sick. On the extreme end, some children turn to self-harm to cope with feelings of loneliness. Keeping an eye out for indicators of self-harm (e.g. suddenly wearing clothes that cover more of their bodies or becoming very guarded about people seeing their bodies, sudden appearance changes, or engaging in risky behavior, especially when this is a new behavior for them). Maybe you are noticing that your child is being very self-critical or negative or they are expressing a lot of worry about being in social situations. All of these can be signs that your child needs some additional help and support.

Ok. It is not enough to talk about problems without offering possible solutions. In your experience, what are the “5 Things Each Of Us Can Do To Help Solve The Loneliness Epidemic Among Young People?” Please give a story or an example for each.

First, it’s important that name what they are feeling and give them a vocabulary to talk about what they are going through. One of the things that can add to feelings of isolation is believing that no one understands how you feel or what it is like for you. Many parents have had up close and personal experiences with loneliness ourselves because of the pandemic, which gives us a great opening to talk about this with our children. Let them know that what they are feeling is normal and encourage them to talk about when the feelings started and why they feel that way. Showing our vulnerability often gives our children the courage to open up to us and enables us to help them in a meaningful way.

Second, help them articulate what “un-lonely” would look like for them. It is hard to change something when you don’t know what you would want it to be, so helping kids talk about what their lives would look like if they felt connected instead of lonely can be very empowering. This is also a great way to learn what your child’s needs are so that you are better equipped to be supportive in helping them build the connections they desire. The pandemic was a great way for me to learn about what my daughter’s ideal social life was to her. My daughter and I are very different in that I am extremely extroverted, so the pandemic was particularly hard for me. I craved outings with friends and missed large group activities, while the connection she most wanted was one on one time with friends or the ability to just go to a park and be around other people.

Once you understand what connection looks like for them, then you can help them make a plan to put some of these desires into action. If your children are younger, maybe setting up frequent playdates or trying a new playgroup would be effective. For older children, parents once you’ve learned their interests, help them find groups or classes they might want to go to. Encourage them to try a new sport or activity, or maybe even connect them with the children of some of your friends so they can extend their network. Any way you can encourage and support them in growing their social connections will help fight loneliness.

This will likely be an unpopular suggestion, but limiting screen time can be very effective in curbing feelings of loneliness. While some kids do socialize through online gaming and other social media apps, this can never take the place of real interaction with others. Online-only interactions can produce superficial connections. Though your children may be talking to others online, real, authentic, and meaningful connections require face-to-face time. Helping them find ways to connect with others in the real world will reduce their feelings of isolation and ultimately boost their confidence in building connections. Limiting screen time may feel like a punishment, so it’s also important to help them find things to replace this. Whether it is taking up a new hobby, playing board games with the family, or carving out special time with you to do something of their choosing, any of these activities will help strengthen their bond with you which gives them the confidence to take reach out to others and build new and meaningful relationships.

Lastly, I think it’s important to identify when seeking outside help might be the answer. Loneliness is real and the mental health effects can be incredibly damaging if left unchecked. Even with as much love and support as parents give, sometimes what is needed is the help of a professional. Finding a therapist that your child feels comfortable talking to is another impactful way to support them. We know that isolation can be a slippery slope into depression, and therapy can provide your child with the professional support they need before the loneliness starts to feel out of control.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I believe there is always room for a little more kindness in the world and it is extra special when you find kindness in unexpected places. I would love to start of movement of spreading unsolicited compliments to random people throughout your day. If you have ever been on the receiving end of one of these, you know how wonderful it feels, and if you have ever given one, you know that it fills your bucket almost as much as the person who received it. By passing that love on, you are not only enriching their lives but also infusing goodness into your own. It should not be hard to spread because once you experience it, you want to share that wonderful feeling with others. It costs nothing and benefits many. It may sound simple, but I truly believe that little things like that can make the biggest difference.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

What a fun question! There are so many that I would love to sit down with for so many different reasons, but one person I have always wanted to meet is Drew Barrymore. I decided after reading her book “Little Girl Lost” that if we ever met, we would instantly be best friends. I was so impressed by her because we are the same age, yet she had already lived this incredible life and overcome hardships that most people don’t have to face, all before she was an adult. Her story made such an impact on me, and I was encouraged and inspired by the grace and wisdom she had at such a young age and how she fought for her sobriety and health. Since then, her career has just been incredible to follow, and I have loved watching her continue to be her authentic self and leave such a positive mark on the world. And now we are both co-parenting after separation and trying to do it in a really positive way, it’s almost like we are destined to be friends.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can find me at darlenetaylor.com or on Facebook and Instagram at @thedarlenetaylor.

Thank you so much for these insights. This was so inspiring, and so important!

About The Interviewer: Pirie is a TedX speaker, author and a Life Empowerment Coach. She is a co-host of Own your Throne podcast, inspiring women in the 2nd chapter of their lives. With over 20 years in front of the camera, Pirie Grossman understands the power of storytelling. After success in commercials and acting. She spent 10 years reporting for E! Entertainment Television, Entertainment Tonight, also hosted ABC’s “Every Woman”. Her work off-camera capitalizes on her strength, producing, bringing people together for unique experiences. She produced a Children’s Day of Compassion during the Dalai Lama’s visit here in 2005. 10,000 children attended, sharing ideas about compassion with His Holiness. From 2006–2009, Pirie Co-chaired the Special Olympics World Winter Games, in Idaho, welcoming 3,000 athletes from over 150 countries. She founded Destiny Productions to create Wellness Festivals and is an Advisory Board member of the Sun Valley Wellness Board.In February 2017, Pirie produced, “Love is Louder”, a Brain Health Summit, bringing in Kevin Hines, noted suicide survivor to Sun Valley who spoke to school kids about suicide. Sun Valley is in the top 5% highest suicide rate per capita in the Northwest, prompting a community initiative with St. Luke’s and other stake holders, to begin healing. She lives in Sun Valley with her two children, serves on the Board of Community School. She has her Master’s degree in Spiritual Psychology from the University of Santa Monica and is an Executive Life Empowerment Coach, where she helps people meet their dreams and goals! The difference between a dream and a goal is that a goal is a dream with a date on it!

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Pirie Jones Grossman

TedX Speaker, Influencer, Bestselling Author and former TV host for E! Entertainment Television, Fox Television, NBC, CBS and ABC.