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How COVID-19 Is Impacting Kids' Friendships

Girl on a bike wearing a mask

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Living through a pandemic is reshaping our kids' friendships in unprecedented ways. Kids are being forced to stay apart from the peers because of social distancing requirements, which is causing them to feel alone, isolated, and bored. In fact, life in lockdown has been extremely challenging for kids especially because their lives have been completely disrupted.

Not only are they dealing with the uncertainty of the upcoming school year, but they also may be lonely, anxious and may even be struggling with fears of dying. That's a lot of weight for them to be carrying on their shoulders.

Why It Matters

At first glance, you may wonder what's the big deal. After all, it hasn't been that long that the country has been social distancing. But social interaction with others is the primary way kids learn. In fact, some would say it is an essential component not only for relationship building, but also for learning skills like collaboration, problem-solving, and communication.

And although there is not a great deal of research available regarding the potential consequences of social distancing on children, there are some studies that suggest kids tend to be more vulnerable than adults when their routines are interrupted and they are cut off from friends. In fact, when a child is isolated from their peers—either due to an illness like cancer or a pandemic like COVID-19—their normal social rhythms are interrupted and it impacts their social development.

For instance, one study found that survivors of childhood cancer reported not only having fewer friends but also more struggles developing healthy friendships. The isolation caused by the coronavirus could potentially have the same impact on kids.

Additionally, when it comes to being separated from friend groups, some kids are more at risk than others. For instance, kids who are only children are in some ways more vulnerable to the isolation and stress that is caused by the pandemic. Likewise, kids with pre-existing anxiety or depression as well as kids with developmental and learning disabilities also have unique challenges with forced to social distance as well.

And not being able to see their peers can have significant consequences for kids whose home lives are chaotic or impacted by domestic abuse. When navigating challenging situations like this, kids often look to school or turn to their friends as a way to forget about what is happening at home. But given the fact that many parts of the country are under extreme social distancing measures, most kids are not only cut off from their support systems, but they also have had to struggle with many of their favorite activities being cancelled as well.

For some, technology has helped bridge the gap. But for those in the digital divide without access to smartphones, tablets, laptops, or even computers at local libraries, the isolation has an even greater impact. They are virtually cut off from their peers with no way of contacting them. Likewise, there is only so much that technology can do to help children maintain connections. Interacting with friends through a screen is the not the same thing as being in person.

Unintended Benefits

Despite all the challenges that come from being cut off from their network of friends, some families are finding that there are some unintended benefits that come from social distancing. For instance, the pandemic has allowed some kids to critically evaluate some of their friendships. What they are realizing that the people they were working so hard to maintain relationships with, were actually not healthy friendships. Instead, they are finding that some of these relationships were with frenemies and fake friends.

Additionally, kids who struggle with social anxiety, were consistently bullied, or simply prefer to learn at their own pace may welcome the fact that schools shut down. After all, not every kid wanted to participate in their spring fun day. And some teens had no intention of attending prom. So, when schools shut down, they were actually relieved because there weren't under as much pressure.

Meanwhile, another benefit is all the time families are able to spend together. Kids in healthy families are flourishing because of the additional bonding time they have with their core family.

Not only are they spending more time together and communicating more frequently, but they also are spending more quality time together playing board games, doing puzzles, going on bike rides, and enjoying nature together. Consequently, many families feel like they are going to emerge from this crisis as a more tight-knit family.

In fact, one study of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in Hong Kong indicated that relationships and mental health may actually benefit from what is experienced during COVID-19.

Even though there were negative consequences including elevated stress levels, more than 60% of the respondents reported that they not only strengthened relationships with family and friends, but that they also emerged with a renewed interest in taking care of their mental health. Likewise, nearly 40% said they also felt more willing to share their feelings with family and friends after the epidemic ended.

How You Can Help

While there is not much you can do to end the need for social distancing in the midst of the pandemic, there is plenty you can do to help your kids cope with the fact that they are missing their friends. From organizing activities to spending more quality time together, you can help them make the most of the situation. Here are some things you can do that can help your kids thrive during this unprecedented time.

Explore Virtual Connections

Regardless of your child's age, technology can be a blessing if it helps kids connect to other people. So get creative and start planning some ways for your kids to stay in touch with others. For instance, younger kids might enjoy a regular story time with a grandparent over FaceTime, Skype, or Zoom. You could even host a virtual show and tell, a talent show, or a scavenger hunt.

Meanwhile, preschoolers might enjoy engaging in parallel play with their cousins or having a virtual dress up day. Even though they cannot be together, they could both get out their legos or their dolls and play together and talk to one another. Other virtual ideas include baking cookies, watching movies, or even having a virtual sleepover. Meanwhile, there also are online games they can play as well connecting through gaming consoles.

Go Old School

When email was invented, writing letters became a thing of the past. But writing letters or putting together care packages is a fun way for kids to keep in touch with friends or family. Plus, they get to practice writing—an essential skill needed for school success.

You also can look into finding a pen pal for your kids. It can be fun—and educational—for kids to exchange letters with someone in another state or even in another country. There are even opportunities to write letters and make pictures for people in nursing homes who may be cut off from the outside world as well.

Some communities have even noticed a re-emergence of neighborhood friendships. Before the pandemic, kids were often away from the home involved in extracurricular activities. But with most sports and other activities being cancelled, they are now at home looking for ways to spend their time. And even though they may not be able to play together, they are able to be outside at the same time and communicate across sidewalks and fences with one another.

Focus on Empathy and Gratitude

While, it's important to encourage them to talk about their feelings and validate their concerns, you also need to make sure they don't dwell on what is wrong with the situation. Instead, encourage them to find things every day to be thankful for.

You could even encourage them to keep a gratitude journal. Or, try putting a jar in the kitchen where family members can write down one thing they are thankful for each day. At the end of the pandemic, you can go back and read what everyone wrote.

Likewise, you can use the pandemic as an opportunity to teach your kids how to show compassion for other people. In fact, being understanding and empathetic are key components of a healthy friendship. Consequently, if one of your child's peers is having a hard time or if they recently lost a pet or even a loved one, help your child think of ways they can show they care.

For instance, they could send a card with a nice note inside. Or, they could bake cookies, drop off a care package, or even just call or text to see how the other person is doing. Little gestures like these can help strengthen bonds even when the kids can be together in person.

Look for Socially-Distanced Opportunities

Although the pandemic has made it challenging to get together in person, when the weather is nice, there are ways for kids to connect in person. And while this may not be entirely possible for younger kids who really don't understand the concept of social distancing, it is an option for older kids and teens who understand the importance of being safe.

For instance, teens might enjoy meeting at a park, sitting on blankets, and talking. Kids also can ride bikes together if they stay distanced or even play games or talk from across the street from one another. Older kids could even meet for ice cream or coffee while maintaining at least six feet of space outside.

Of course, each family has to weigh the risks of allowing their kids to see one another. In the end though, it's important to err on the side of caution. Even though spending time together may improve their mood, you also want to make sure it's not going to contribute to spreading the virus.

Stay Involved

As tempting as it might be to allow your kids to watch television all day, it's important that you are regularly interacting with them. For instance, instead of binging on Netflix in the evening why not play a board game or do a puzzle as a family. Not only is the challenge of a game or a puzzle good for your kids' developing brains, but the connection and time together as a family can help them cope with loneliness—especially if they are frequently forced to play alone.

Likewise, you should make it a habit to check in with each of your kids daily. Ask how they are feeling and if they want to talk about anything. Even if they don't have anything to share, or they simply don't want to talk, knowing that you are there for them and interested in their lives can go a long way in easing some of the anxiety, grief, and loneliness they may be experiencing.

You also can empower your kids to come up with their own ideas for combatting loneliness. Not only does this encourage problem-solving and creativity, it also fosters independence and teaches them to take responsibility for their own happiness. And most importantly, it will build their confidence and make them feel like they can manage the isolation they are experience.

A Word From Verywell

Despite concerns about how the coronavirus is impacting kids, many psychologists believe that most kids will likely bounce back from the friendship challenges they are facing, especially if they are surrounded by warm and supportive family members. So, don't worry too much about the consequences. After all, social distancing is keeping them safe.

Remember, kids are resilient. Just be sure you are attentive to their feelings and help them through any rough patches they are experiencing while looking for ways to help them continue to connect with their peers. When you help your kids maintain their friendships during the pandemic, you are helping to facilitate an essential part of their lives.

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Article 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.
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