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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 has reshaped our kids' friendships in unprecedented ways. Kids were forced to stay apart from their peers because of social distancing requirements, which caused many of them to feel alone, isolated, and bored. Life in lockdown was extremely challenging for kids especially because their social lives were completely disrupted.

Not only were they dealing with the uncertainty of the school year, but many also felt lonely, anxious, or struggled with fears of dying or worries about their loved ones getting sick. That's a lot of weight for them to carry on their shoulders.

Now that we're emerging from the height of the pandemic, the general outlook looks much more hopeful and kids are more able to safely socialize. However, the adverse effects of living under quarantine on their friendships many linger for months or years to come. Plus, if and when local outbreaks happen, communities may need to resume stricter lockdown measures again.

Why It Matters

At first glance, you may wonder what's the big deal. After all, in the scheme of things, social distancing may not seem so terrible, especially as in many ways life is now returning to normal. 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.

Mounting research shows the immediate harm and the potential future consequences of social distancing on children. Also, studies suggest that kids tend to be more vulnerable than adults when their routines are interrupted and they are cut off from friends. 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 has been shown to have the same impact on kids.

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 caused by living through the pandemic. Likewise, kids with pre-existing anxiety or depression as well as those with developmental and learning disabilities also had unique friendship-related challenges when forced to social distance.

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 when many parts of the country were under extreme social distancing measures, most kids were not only cut off from their support systems, but they also had to struggle with many of their favorite activities being canceled as well.

For some, technology helped bridge the gap. But for those without access to smartphones, tablets, laptops, or even computers at local libraries, the isolation may have had an even greater impact. They were 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 not the same thing as being in person.

Unintended Benefits

Despite all the challenges that came from being cut off from their network of friends, some families found that there were some unintended benefits that come from social distancing. For instance, the pandemic allowed some kids to critically evaluate some of their friendships.

Some kids may have had a chance to see that some of the people they were working so hard to maintain relationships with were not actually good friends. Instead, they may have realized that some of these relationships were with frenemies and fake friends.

Additionally, some kids who struggle with social anxiety, were consistently bullied, or simply prefer to learn at their own pace welcomed 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.

Another benefit is all the time families were able to spend together. Some kids in healthy families flourished because of the additional bonding time they had with their core family.

When strict coronavirus restrictions were in place, families were spending more time together and communicating more frequently. They also were 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 emerging from this crisis as a more tight-knit family. However, time with friends did take a big hit during the pandemic.

How You Can Help

Now that the need for social distancing and other pandemic restrictions is coming to an end, especially for kids 12 and up who can be vaccinated, there is plenty you can do to help your kids reconnect safely. From organizing outside activities to spending more quality time together, you can help recharge their friendships.

Evaluate Your Child's Risk

Highly effective vaccines, lockdown measures, and improved understanding of the disease have made gathering together much safer. However, each family will need to consider their specific risk and comfort level when deciding which social activities to allow.

If all members of your family who are 12 and up are vaccinated, you may feel very safe having in-person get-togethers. Low infection rates in your local area may bolster your confidence in child get-togethers as well.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fully vaccinated individuals can largely return to their pre-pandemic lifestyle, behaviors, and activities.

However, if your child isn't vaccinated, you may not be comfortable with inside gatherings yet, particularly if you or those in your inner circle are not vaccinated or have health factors that make catching the coronavirus more dangerous. These are personal decisions and there is no right or wrong on how careful you feel you need to be. If you aren't sure about your family's risk, reach out to your doctor.

They can help you work through your concerns and offer recommendations on what is safe for your child. You'll also want to consider the mental health toll for your child of not seeing friends.

Note, too, that even if you feel comfortable with playdates, some of your child's friend's parents may not. In those cases, aim to maintain connection using socially distanced or virtual gatherings. Also, seek to expand your child's circle with new friends.

Ease Into In-Person Gatherings

After months of living under pandemic restrictions, your child may be eager to socialize. But they also may feel a bit uncomfortable, awkward, or overwhelmed by the prospect.

Ease them back into their social lives by starting slow. At first, aim to limit the number of kids they interact with or the length of time they play. Your child may need a little time and practice to get the hang of interacting with friends again. Rebuild these skills by role-playing and using reminders around sharing, taking turns, patience, gentle hands, flexibility, empathy, and other pro-social behaviors.

Explore Virtual Connections

Regardless of your child's age, technology can be a blessing if it helps kids connect to other people. Continue to use virtual connections to allow your kids to stay in touch with those they can't see in person. For instance, younger kids might enjoy regular storytime 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 if 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

Even as many communities are getting back to "normal," many people are still kept apart by the challenges of traveling or health issues that make greater restrictions important. But there are other ways to keep connected.

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 can continue these activities even after the pandemic.

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 enjoy correspondence with a friendly child.

Some communities have noticed a re-emergence of neighborhood friendships. Before the pandemic, kids were often away from the home while involved in extracurricular activities. But with most sports and other activities canceled due to the pandemic, many kids rediscovered neighborhood pals. Many families are letting their kids play with other kids outside and this becomes even more convenient (and low pressure) with kids from around the block.

Focus on Empathy and Gratitude

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

For example, even if they lost touch with some friends during the pandemic, they can think about ways to reconnect now that things are opening up. Or they can try new activities where they may meet new friends.

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. Remember, too, that even as life gets less restrictive, kids still may have grief over the time spent without access to their friends.

Consider that the pandemic has been an opportunity to teach your kids how to show compassion for other people. Being understanding and empathetic are key components of a healthy friendship. 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. Encourage them to reach out to their friends to reconnect in person in whichever way both sets of parents will allow. Little gestures like these can help strengthen bonds.

Look for Socially Distanced Opportunities

For families that choose to continue social distancing practices for their unvaccinated children, aim to get kids together outside. Particularly when the weather is nice, there are many ways for kids to safely connect in person. Research has shown that, even for the unvaccinated, the risk of contracting COVID-19 outdoors is extremely low, and that, in most cases, masks are not needed.

For instance, teens might enjoy meeting at a park, sitting on blankets, and talking. Kids also can ride bikes together, play sports, walk their pets together, or even play games on the playground. Older kids could even meet for ice cream or go on hikes.

Of course, each family has to weigh the risks of allowing their kids to see one another. In the end, it's important to stick to recommended safety guidelines, if applicable, in your area. 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 Engaged

After making it through the worst of the pandemic, many parents are understandably exhausted. Still, it's just as important now that you are regularly interacting with your kids. For instance, instead of binging on Netflix in the evening, play a board game or do a puzzle as a family.

The challenge of a game or a puzzle good for your kids' developing brains. And the time together as a family can help them work on social skills and cope with loneliness as they rebuild friendships.

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 any anxiety, grief, or loneliness that they may still be experiencing.

You also can empower your kids to come up with their own ideas for reconnecting with friends. Not only does this encourage problem-solving and creativity, but it also fosters independence and teaches them to take responsibility for their own happiness. Equally important, it will build their confidence and empower them to take an active role in their social lives.

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 may be facing, especially if they are surrounded by warm and supportive family members.

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 or make new friends, you are helping to facilitate an essential part of their lives.

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Article Sources
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