Written by Provisional Psychologist Natasha Binns
The link between social skills and loneliness - helping neurodiverse teens make friends
The interconnection of loneliness and social skills is complex. Social skills refer to the abilities and
behaviours that enable individuals to interact effectively and appropriately with others. Loneliness,
on the other hand, is the subjective feeling of being alone or not having meaningful social
Loneliness is not caused by being alone, but instead when our need for significant and rewarding
social contact is not met. This need to belong is a major driver for human beings. Loneliness has
served an evolutionary purpose, encouraging us to band together for survival. While we no longer
need to protect ourselves from marauding sabre-toothed tigers, loneliness is still a wake-up call that
reminds us of the threat of isolation from the social pack.
Connection helps us shape our sense of identity
Through social connections we are able to receive validation and acceptance from our peers. We
engage in social comparison with others, which helps to shape our sense of identity and our place in
our world. When we experience disconnection from those around us, we are deprived of these
experiences. We may begin to question our likeability or worthiness and compare ourselves
unfavourably to others.
Disconnection can happen after experiencing rejection or exclusion. When this disconnection has
been prolonged or repeated, these feelings and insecurities can become internalised. This leads to
believing that we are fundamentally unlikeable, or unwanted. When these feelings and insecurities
become stronger and solidify into negative beliefs about ourselves; they can be extremely difficult to
counteract and are devastating to our self-worth.
The link between low self-esteem, loneliness and mental health problems
Those with low self-esteem often have a more persistent negative view of their abilities, worth and
values as a person. They engage in self-critical thinking patterns and have difficulty forming and
maintaining healthy relationships and may be more prone to social isolation. These are all factors
that are either associated with or can contribute to the formation of depression.
Low self-esteem can lead to a lack of motivation and decreased engagement in activities. Loneliness
is also associated with increased levels of anxiety and stress responses within the body as perceived
isolation and lack of social support can lead to feelings of worry restlessness, and vulnerability.
Can improved social skills reduce feelings of loneliness?
Having strong social skills can certainly help individuals build and maintain relationships, and this can
help to reduce feelings of loneliness. When you have good social skills, you are more likely to engage
in effective communication, active listening, empathy, and cooperation. These skills facilitate the
formation of connections and bonds with others. This in turn leads to increased social support and a
sense of belonging.
Adolescence is a period where there is much emphasis on fitting in and belonging to friendship
groups and it can be especially lonely for neurodiverse teens who struggle to make and maintain
Neurodiverse teenagers can face a variety of challenges with their levels of social competence,
- Difficulties understanding nonverbal cues including facial expression and body language,
interpreting social cues, understanding social norms, initiating or maintaining conversations,
or understanding others people’s perspectives or emotions.
- Sensory sensitivities which can be overwhelming or distressing for them can affect their
ability to engage in social activities, cope with sensory demands of social interaction, or
participate in certain group settings.
- Executive functioning difficulties can affect their planning, organisational abilities, time
management, behaviour regulation, and impulse control.
- Social anxiety due to worries regarding social rejection or negative evaluations from peers.
Neurodiverse teenagers may also be at a higher risk of bullying or peer rejection due to their
These difficulties can lead to social isolation and a higher likelihood of experiencing loneliness.
Loneliness can also act as a barrier to practicing social skills. When people feel lonely, they often
avoid social situations, or experience anxiety and self-consciousness in social settings. This can
hinder their opportunities to engage with others and practice their social skills, creating a vicious
cycle of loneliness and social difficulties.
How can developing age-appropriate social skills protect neurodiverse teens from mental illness?
When age-appropriate social skills are developed in neurodiverse teens, they can provide important
protective factors that reduce their risk of mental illness, promote their overall wellbeing, and
increase their connectedness to those around them. These social skills enhance their self-confidence
and their self-esteem as they are now able to better communicate with and understand their peers. This then allows them to make connections with other teens their age and form meaningful
connections and friendships, fostering a sense of belonging. This can then reduce feelings of social
anxiety and stress as they now have the confidence and the tools to navigate social situations and
challenges more comfortably.
Alongside the development of age-appropriate social skills are also the development of positive
coping mechanisms such as problem-solving techniques and conflict resolution techniques which can
contribute to better stress management, resilience, and emotional regulation.
It is important that neurodiverse teens be supported in developing their social competence in
supportive and inclusive environments where they are able to practise and develop social skills in a
safe, structured setting.
How does KidsLink assist teens in dealing with difficult feelings and develop friendship skills?
KidsLink programs are weekly social skills groups running throughout the school term that can assist
teens in developing the skills to build friendships with peers both within and outside of KidsLink
groups. This is done through facilitating the developments of skills to cope with difficult or
overwhelming feelings, skills regarding reciprocal conversation and empathy, develop their control
over their impulses, and develop skills to successfully play with peers. KidsLink groups have a
maximum of six participants of similar ages and facilitated by trained therapists. Teens relate and
communicate with each other while engaging in group activities using art, drama, games, and play.
Realtime soft skills support and guidance are provided by the facilitators throughout the sessions
with groups designed to be a safe, inclusive, and supportive environment for teens to communicate
and relate to one another.
If you’re interested in learning more about our Kidslink programs, or would like your child to
participate in our Kidslink program, please contact us here at Spencer Health on (02) 9960 1222 or
email us at email@example.com.