How to Help Your College Student Cope With Loneliness

Loneliness is a common problem among college students, especially those who are beginning their first year. But that does not make it any easier to cope with.

"Loneliness is among the most compromising feelings a person can experience," explains Matt Glowiak, PhD, LCPC, a licensed professional counselor in Illinois who is an expert in depression, anxiety, mental health in adolescents, family support, self-care, and more. "Because many negative feelings associated with it are internalized, many students do not readily speak to the issue, as they feel embarrassed or ashamed."

This silence just compounds the issue. Homesickness, anxiety, and depression can all be a part of the experience as well. If your college student is experiencing loneliness at school, read on for tips on how they can cope and what you can do to help.

Tips for Making Friends in College
Verywell / Jessica Olah 

How Common Is Loneliness?

Loneliness is a huge issue on campuses across the country. One survey conducted by the American College Health Association found that 67% of female students and 54% of male students had felt "very lonely" in the past 12 months.

The students surveyed also indicated feeling overwhelming anxiety as well as feelings of hopelessness. Nearly 12% also had considered suicide. These are startling numbers for parents who are sending their kids off to college.

Matt Glowiak, PhD, LCPC

When low feelings stemming from loneliness negatively impact mental health, it is a sign that a student should see a mental health professional. One need not wait until the condition becomes debilitating.

— Matt Glowiak, PhD, LCPC

Relational issues, self-esteem, social anxiety, and interpersonal problems—all of which can contribute to loneliness—are also concerns among college students. The number of students accessing a college's mental health services also has steadily increased. Clearly, mental health issues are a growing concern for college students across the nation.

"When low feelings stemming from loneliness negatively impact mental health, it is a sign that a student should see a mental health professional," says Dr. Glowiak. "One need not wait until the condition becomes debilitating. Feelings of anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and otherwise are tell-tale indications."

If you or a loved one are struggling with depression or anxiety, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Causes of Loneliness

While loneliness is a common issue among college students, the causes are not what you might expect. For instance, it is not always the lack of people that makes a student feel lonely, but the lack of quality interactions. College students can feel lonely despite being in a crowd of people they know and with whom they spend time.

Gabrielle Schreyer-Hoffman, PhD

Leaving home can be challenging especially if you’re leaving behind family and friends you have close and loving relationships with. [Meanwhile,] developing new friendships can be challenging.

— Gabrielle Schreyer-Hoffman, PhD

"There are many reasons a college student might experience loneliness," says Gabrielle Schreyer-Hoffman, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York City who specializes in mental health for college students, self-esteem, life transitions, relationships, and more. "Leaving home can be challenging especially if you’re leaving behind family and friends you have close and loving relationships with. [Meanwhile,] developing new friendships can be challenging."

Social media also can be huge contributor to this experience despite the "connectedness" that it promises. Even though social media is very useful for making plans when a student already has connections in place, when they do not have many, or any, connections, it can amplify their loneliness.

A study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found an association between social media use and "perceived" social isolation. What they discovered is that young adults who frequently use social media seem to feel more socially isolated than those who do not use social media as often.

It can be very hard for a young adult to watch the "highlight reels" of their peers on social media and assume everything is going well for others while they are sitting alone in their dorm room. Additionally, retreating into online gaming, Netflix, and other online escapes also hinders the chances of connecting with others.

How to Prevent Loneliness

One of the best ways to cope with college loneliness is to recognize that it is a very real possibility and then take steps to keep it at bay. The first way to do that is to get involved on campus. A number of students who report loneliness also have not taken steps to get involved. Staying busy is one of the best ways to beat loneliness.

To some students, getting involved can seem overwhelming, especially when they want to focus on their studies. However, research has shown that the more active students are in outside activities, the better their academics will be.

"For those who are socially anxious and take time warming up, a new [college] environment can be terrifying," says Dr. Glowiak. "Rather than socialize with new peer groups, they isolate." 

Getting involved or striking up conversations can seem like a daunting task and one that they want to avoid at all costs. For these students, it is important that they set small goals for themselves. They might start by setting a goal to say hello to at least one person in each class or to sit with a new person at lunch at least once or twice a week.

How to Cope With Loneliness

Even though students often assume that they are the only ones feeling lonely, there are actually a lot of other students on campus feeling lonely and disconnected. Putting themselves out there not only will help them but could be a huge help to someone else, too. Here are some other ideas for coping with loneliness on campus.

Attend Workshops or Counseling

Some schools have groups for students that are struggling to adjust to college life. This can be something valuable for a student who is struggling with loneliness, says Dr. Schreyer-Hoffman.

From group sessions and counseling appointments to workshops on everything from mindfulness to coping skills, colleges typically have many options for students. The key is to do a little research and then follow through on getting the help that they need.

Group settings can help students normalize their feelings as well as develop connections with others. Group settings also may help prevent any emotional setbacks while at college.

Limit Technology

Another way to address loneliness at college is to limit technology use and instead focus on leaving the dorm and getting involved. Whether that means joining a club, a sport, or a religious group, the key is to emphasize face-to-face interactions and reduce social media, gaming, and Netflix time.

It also helps to stay connected with family and friends from home—but not at the expense of becoming immersed in the college environment. The important thing is to find a balance between connecting with new people while keeping in touch with those at home.

The combination of the two reminds students that they are not alone. There are still lots of people in the world that care about them or want to get to know them. Plus, there is plenty of room in their life for new relationships and friendships.

What Parents Can Do

Hearing that your college student is lonely while they are miles from home can feel gut-wrenching. But there are things that you can do without hovering over your college-age kids. Here are some tips on what you can do to help your college student cope with loneliness.

Remind Them Making Friends Takes Effort

One of the best ways to address the issue is to remind your student that the ability to socialize with others and make friends is not a fixed trait. Instead, it is more of a muscle that they can strengthen and grow.

Too many times when students struggle with loneliness, they turn inward and criticize or blame themselves. They feel there must be something wrong with them. But the truth is, with a little effort, anyone can make friends.

Any time a parent hears this type of self-blame, they need to correct it and remind their student that building lasting connections takes time. It's also important to remind them that they are not doing anything wrong—what they are going through is to be expected and is absolutely normal.

Encourage Them to Get Involved

Urge your student to take action instead of wallowing or fixating on something negative for too long. They might invite someone to study with them over coffee, sit with someone new at lunch, join a club or a group, and go to college-organized events and mixers.

"Most colleges have ample opportunities to meet and connect with peers via clubs, groups, Greek life, events, school housing, and volunteering," says Dr. Schreyer-Hoffman. "Utilizing these activities to meet others can be a great way to combat loneliness."

Remind them that feeling connected on campus does not just automatically happen. It takes effort and work. Sure, it will be draining at times to continue to put themselves out there—especially if they are shy or introverted—but it is worth it in the end. Some of their best friends are somewhere on campus. They just need to find them.

Discuss Reasonable Expectations

Students are often saddened to realize that the visions they had for their college experience do not always match their experience. Remind them that expecting to have close friendships almost immediately, like the ones they have at home, is not realistic.

It takes some time to build a connection with someone. Expecting an immediate friendship is unfair to them and those they are meeting. They need to be patient with themselves and with others.

Some kids, in an effort to mimic the relationships they have at home, will rush into friendships without taking the time to get to know someone or build trust. Discuss the importance of having healthy boundaries in their new relationships.

Avoid Trying to Fix Things

Do not try to swoop in and rescue your college student. They need to figure this out and learn how to push themselves on their own without you clearing a path for them. The most important thing you can do for your student is to listen and empathize.

"Parents should hear them out," says Dr. Glowiak. "Do not minimize or invalidate their feelings. This is their lived experience and making friends can be difficult—even for those who do not struggle with social anxiety."

Refrain from offering too much advice. Instead, try to position yourself as a safe place for them to get things off of their chest. They do not need you to fix things for them, but instead to empower them to address problems themselves (whether that is by getting more involved or getting help from a counselor).

Stay in Contact

Whenever possible, you should may remain in close contact with your kids, says Dr. Glowiak. Regular calls, texts, and video chats can help ease some of their feelings of loneliness. Even consistent visits can help.

"Visiting on weekends, attending college events, and otherwise [staying in touch] helps," he adds. "It is also important to prioritize time together during sanctioned breaks. If the situation is one in which mental health is compromised, encouraging the child to speak with a professional is recommended."

A Word From Verywell

Feeling lonely at college is normal but it does not have to be endured. Students can combat loneliness by getting involved in campus activities, staying in contact with those they love at home, and using campus resources. With a little effort, they will start to meet people and their loneliness will subside.

However, if the loneliness starts to feel unbearable or interferes with their day-to-day life and activities, it is important that they reach out for help. Empower your child to seek the help of a mental health professional at the college's health center. There they will find tools and strategies for coping with loneliness in a healthy and productive way.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American College Health Association. National College Health Assessment.

  2. UCLA Higher Education Research Institute. The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2016.

  3. Primack BA, Shensa A, Sidani JE, et al. Social media use and perceived social isolation among young adults in the U.SAm J Prev Med. 2017;53(1):1-8. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2017.01.010

  4. National Center for Education Statistics. Extracurricular participation and student engagement.

Additional Reading

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert.