In the best of times, tween friendships are tricky and shifting, inevitably hitting snags. Being cut off from peers during the pandemic leave some feeling left out or bullied online or an open target for gossip.
Phyllis Fagell, a psychotherapist, school counselor and author of Middle School Matters, provides insights into what your child may be experiencing or feeling with concrete approaches you can use to help your tweens and teens during this period of social isolation and long after. Under the best of circumstances, middle schoolers have to navigate a complex social landscape. They care deeply about their friends, but their empathy is developing, they’re insecure, and they’re still learning how to self-regulate and interpret non-verbal cues. They’re also in the throes of puberty, maturing at wildly different rates, and engaging with well-meaning but equally unskilled peers.
As the pandemic and social distancing add a new layer of stress, here are 4 ways to help your child stay confident and connected.
- Explain that social distancing can heighten sensitivity
“I feel left out,” Claire*, 11, told me. Her friends had been meeting up the last few nights on House Party, a kids’ video-conferencing platform, and no one had thought to notify her. She wasn’t sure if they meant to exclude her, but she couldn’t stop thinking about the oversight.
Just a few weeks earlier, Claire would have cleared the air in person the next day. Or she might have decided to let the whole thing blow over if everything seemed normal enough at school. Instead, she just felt sad and unsettled.
If your child feels wounded about a perceived slight, validate her hurt feelings and encourage her to think expansively. Ask questions such as, “Is it possible they thought you knew about the call, or that one of your friends tried to reach you?” Explain that they may feel more sensitive because they lack opportunities for organic, positive interactions.
Then help them exercise agency. Come up with solutions together. You might ask, “Could you organize a get-together on House Party for another night this week?” Or ask them whether they’d like to share their feelings with someone in their friend group.
- Spot-check their online behavior
“Naomi told everyone that my parents are fighting all the time,” Zoe, 12, told me. “I trusted her not to say anything.” As the pandemic upends everyone’s lives, kids are absorbing the ambient anxiety. And tweens who are scared tend to be more impulsive and less empathetic. In a bid for attention, they may spill someone’s secret or post a mean comment.
Check your children’s texts and snaps periodically, call out any cruelty without shaming them, and help them identify positive ways to cope with darker emotions such as jealousy or anger. This is a good time to remind them to sit on their hands and count to 60 before posting anything, and to silently ask themselves whether their words could harm someone else or come back to haunt them. As tweens spend considerably more time online for both academics and socializing, consider scheduling screen-free time, too. Kids who never get a break from social media tend to suffer more from FOMO, or fear of missing out, and also tend to feel worse about themselves.
Remind your child that they can always pick up a phone and call a friend, but they may preserve their confidence if they limit the amount of time they spend chasing likes or lurking in other people’s social media feeds.
- Help them interact comfortably with peers
“I’m worried about Colin,” a sixth-grader’s mother told me. “No one is calling him or asking him to do anything virtually, and he’s not calling anyone either. He’s lonely and upset, but I don’t know how to help him.” No two kids have the same social needs. An extrovert is going to miss regular face-to-face interactions, but they’re also going to identify alternative ways of engaging with friends. For introverts, social distancing might be a relief. They no longer have to interact with peers all day at school and potentially into the night. If this describes your child, don’t pressure him to talk online to others more often. If he’s content, let him manage his own social life. Otherwise, your son or daughter might feel judged or fear letting you down.
I worry the most about the third group of children. These are kids who want to be liked, but who were isolated even before the shutdown because they have difficulty connecting with peers. If your child falls into this camp, use the time to bolster skills. You have far more access to their interactions right now, so observe their behavior. Do they interrupt? Try to dominate a conversation? Do anything physically off-putting while on screen? When they’re in an online class, do they try too hard to be funny?
Be kind but direct. Help them understand, for instance, that if someone looks away while they’re talking, that’s a sign that they’re bored. Help them look for common ground. Encourage them to start with curiosity and ask questions. If they lack any ability to engage in conversation, suggest they consider playing video games or watching the same movie at the same time as a peer.
Talk to their teachers and counselor. There may be online lunch groups, book clubs, or other more structured, inclusive activities that would give them a chance to spend time with classmates. Consider teletherapy, too. Many practices have started offering online social skills groups.
- Help them get out of their own head
When kids fixate on social losses, help them transcend themselves. You can’t spare them the disappointment of missing a sports season or not being able to celebrate their birthday with friends, but you can try shifting their attention to others who feel even more disconnected. Tweens want to make a difference in the world. To the extent possible, give them ownership of how they help others. Tweens are eager to assert their independence, so it’s hard for many of them to be stuck at home 24/7 with their parents.
Discuss their options rather than dictate their choices. Do they want to reach out to a classmate who they’ve heard is lonely? Do they want to make masks for first responders? Or, would they perhaps like to create artwork or write letters to residents in assisted living facilities or hospital patients who can’t have visitors?
Don’t give up if your child is initially negative or indifferent. When they see they can change others’ circumstances, they’ll experience a boost in self-confidence. They also may be more likely to feel grateful for what they have rather than focus on what they’re missing.
It’s not possible to shield kids from all disappointment in the best of times, let alone during a crisis. But there may be an upside to the discomfort they’re currently experiencing. Emily Bianchi, assistant professor of organization and management at Emory University’s Goizueta School of Business, has done research on adversity and found that forced periods of uncertainty can lead to greater levels of satisfaction, gratitude, and flexibility later in life. No one would wish this on anyone but your child may emerge with skills s/he never could have acquired in the classroom.