How COVID-19 is Impacting Children’s Friendships

At Inside SEL, our mission is to act megaphone, amplifying the great work being done by leaders in education and social-emotional learning across the country.

Throughout the past year, we have been incredibly fortunate to help build and interact with an amazing community of educators, administrators, researchers, parents, students, and other proponents of whole child education. Many of our readers will write to us with their own stories and opinions about the future of education, and we view it as part of our goal to help share high-impact stories with as wide of an audience as possible.

The following piece was authored by Charlie Fletcher, a freelance writer living in the pacific northwest who has a variety of interests including sociology, politics, business, education, health, and more.

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It’s a scary time. That’s not news. Many of us are trying to cope with anxiety and uncertainty on a level we’ve never experienced before. We’re all just figuring out how to deal with a situation for which there’s no playbook — not in “modern” times, at least. And, as the months drag on, for a lot of us, life under pandemic conditions is getting tougher to take.

And what’s true for adults is doubly so for children. Children simply don’t have the coping skills, they don’t have the life experience, and they likely don’t have the understanding that adults do. 

What’s worse, though, is that in the wake of rampant school closures, our kids are being asked to navigate these uncertain times without the ordinary routines that could have provided a bit of stability. They’re missing not just the opportunity to learn in person with teachers and peers, but they’re also missing invaluable face-to-face time with friends. 

And, even for our social media-loving tweens and teens, connecting with friends through screens might suffice for a little while, but it cannot be a permanent solution. Friendship isn’t just one of life’s great pleasures–it’s also one of life’s necessities. But, like so many areas of our children’s lives, COVID is also taking a profound toll on our children’s friendships.

Learning, Living, Loving

As important as schools are to our children’s education, many of life’s most important lessons aren’t taught by teachers or even by parents. Life’s most valuable lessons typically come to us through our peers. 

Engaging with peers helps children learn to see the world, and themselves, through other’s eyes. The development of social awareness is fundamental to the child’s sense of identity, confidence, and compassion

When children interact with people outside of their family, especially when they interact with other children, they must develop the social skills needed for success later in life, from learning to share, collaborate, negotiate, solve problems, and resolve conflict. Those fundamental life skills are just not ones that the artificial environment of the digital screen is conducive to. After all, it’s harder to walk away from your friend during a playdate than it is to minimize their window or mute their mic.

Loneliness, Depression, and Anxiety

There’s no question that life under lockdown can be lonely. As much as you love your family and as much as your family loves you, nothing can replace time with friends. Nothing can replace the celebrations, the events — from birthday parties to football games to school dances —that are magical parts of growing up. 

And the emotional and psychological impacts of prolonged isolation are taking their toll. A survey of American high school students released during the summer found that more than 33% were experiencing depression and anxiety, while more than 25% feel a painful loss of connection with their schools, their community, and, by extension, their peers. Even for these digital natives, teens appear to be having a difficult time maintaining their friendships, or finding the fulfillment in them, when those relationships must go almost wholly virtual.

Now that lockdowns are continuing well into the new school year in many parts of the U.S., those challenges of the first months of the lockdown can only be expected to worsen. And, the longer the lockdowns last, the greater the long-term risks for our kids. 

Experts fear that very young children and teens may face the most significant effects because these are incredibly important stages for brain development. As developmental psychologist, Cameron Caswell notes, “All humans crave personal interaction, touch, novelty, and excitement. So I believe prolonged isolation will start to wear tremendously on everyone….However, I also believe that the long-term effects of prolonged isolation will be more substantial for teens….Our brains go through their two biggest growth spurts during infancy and adolescence. These are the two periods where our brains are most malleable and primed for learning.” 

In other words, babies’ brains are little sponges, absorbing, recording, imprinting whatever they feel, whatever they experience, from the world around them. Social isolation can deprive them of the rich variety of human interaction they need to thrive. At the same time, they are sensing the anxiety and disruption in the world around them, which means you may see a decided change in your baby’s behavior. They may become fussier or clingier. They may even regress in their milestones, from eating and toileting to sleeping and talking. 

Adolescents, on the other hand, are naturally seeking to develop a sense of identity and autonomy outside of the family. And that seeking centers on their peer relationships. At this stage, it’s only natural for friends to have greater importance and influence, for teens to find comfort and meaning in their peers, and to feel adrift and alone when this crucial time with friends is lost.   

What to Do

Unfortunately, there’s nothing that parents can do about either the pandemic or the lockdowns. Thankfully, though, there’s plenty that can be done to help our kids, no matter their age, get through this crisis with their friendships intact. In fact, with a little ingenuity, your child may emerge from this long, strange period to find that their friendships are even deeper and more meaningful than before. 

The first and most important thing you can do for your kids is talk. Don’t try to hide, cover up, or minimize what’s going on because that’s only going to increase their anxiety and lead them to imagine the worst. Solicit and answer their questions in an age-appropriate manner. Invite them to speak openly and honestly about their feelings, from fears to frustrations and everything in between. 

And don’t be afraid, as appropriate, to share your own feelings and fears, let them know it’s okay to feel how you feel about this experience. You’ll be providing an invaluable life lesson: that even adults feel scared and upset sometimes, it is possible to be sad, mad, and worried, and to get through it.

You’re also probably going to need to be much more of a “chill” parent than you once were. Now is not the time to enforce strict limitations on screen time, especially with older children and teens. Instead, encourage your children to connect with their friends online when they need to. Just make sure that your kids are using social media safely. It’s easy to block unsafe sites and install monitoring software to ensure your kids are connecting only with those you trust. 

Finally, remember that being socially distanced doesn’t mean you have to lock your kids in solitary confinement inside the house. In fact, getting outdoors can be the best medicine for your kids — and you. And, best of all, outside is the perfect place to meet up with friends and family. Just as long as everyone’s wearing a mask and keeping their distance, a nice bike ride or a nature hike can be the perfect way for your kids to get the social interaction they need — safely.

Care, Love, and Patience

There’s no question that COVID-19 has changed our lives. But that doesn’t mean it has to rob our kids of their childhood and, especially, of the relationships that make childhood so special. The coronavirus doesn’t have to deprive our children of the friends they love, the social support they need. It just takes a bit of strategy, a lot of care, and even more love and patience.

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