By James J. Crist, Ph.D., author of The Survival Guide for Making and Being Friends
With the COVID-19 pandemic going into its second year, we are starting to see the mental health of children and teens decline as they continue living under COVID restrictions. For kids whose primary avenue of socialization was attending school, the loss of peer friendships and activities is even more keenly felt. Not being able to play sports or participate in the arts and other extracurriculars is hard for kids of all ages, as these activities are major drivers of peer relationships as well as outlets for stress relief. We are seeing increased irritability and anxiety, as well as regression in behavior.
Social connections have a protective effect on kids (and adults!) when it comes to dealing with stress. Many kids have lost touch with classmates. Neighborhood kids are less likely to come outside and play. For those who have lost family members during the pandemic, the fear of losing more loved ones may be particularly high. Kids who struggle with peer relationships even in good times may find the challenge of trying to make new friends during a pandemic overwhelming.
Fortunately, there are ways of keeping kids connected with each other, including helping them make new friends, that can help reduce the negative fallout from the pandemic.
Check with Your Child First
Just because you may think this is a problem doesn’t mean that your kids think it’s a problem. Some kids are perfectly happy being at home, video chatting or messaging with friends, or gaming socially via online platforms such as Xbox Live, PlayStation Now, and Steam. Kids with social anxiety or autism spectrum disorder may prefer solitary play.
Rather than making assumptions, start by asking your kids how they are feeling about being home and whether they would be open to connecting with other kids. If you see signs of depression, such as withdrawing from family interactions, share what you have observed with them as a way of broaching the subject. Ask them how they could establish or improve their connections with others. You might be surprised at their ideas!
Socializing Within Your Pods
Most families have developed their own rules for socializing during COVID. Some parents allow their kids to play with other kids outside. Others let kids play inside as long as they wear masks and maintain some social distance. Some allow sleepovers. Others limit socializing to a small group or “pod” of people who are also limiting their exposure, in the hopes of minimizing the risk of contracting or spreading COVID.
Many kids and teens communicate with their friends while gaming online. Others participate in group chats on platforms such as Discord, Snapchat, and Messenger, share pictures on Instagram, post funny videos on TikTok, or talk on the phone (a rarity these days as many prefer texting over actual conversation). FaceTime and Zoom calls are popular ways of communicating with relatives and friends.
Video games such as Fortnite and Roblox continue to be popular with younger children and have actually helped them cope with the loneliness triggered by the pandemic. Facebook Messenger Kids allows kids to play fun games together. Jackbox is another popular collection of games. Check out this article for more suggestions on the best online games. Be sure to monitor your children while they’re playing to make sure that they are interacting safely. Online bullying continues to be a problem for some kids.
Some people enjoy being able to watch shows or movies together and there are forums for doing so. Houseparty is one such avenue. Amazon Prime, Disney+, and Teleparty by Netflix all offer opportunities for people to watch TV shows or movies together.
If your children are enjoying these activities with friends, you probably don’t need to worry too much. Just be sure to build in some outside time, as exercise is one of the best ways to reduce stress.
The Challenges of Making New Friends
While keeping in touch with current or old friends is challenging during a pandemic, making new friends is clearly more difficult. For those who are going to school for in-person learning or hybrid learning (alternating between in-person and virtual classes), having to stay six feet apart, wearing masks, and even being placed in separate plexiglass bubbles makes socializing much more difficult. Kids may be prevented from socializing, even at lunch.
Fortunately, there are reasons to be optimistic. As spring and summer approach, more people will be outdoors, which is a safer place to socialize. Parents can help their children improve their social skills and their ability to connect with others. Teaching kids to be friendly, and leading by example, can help kids become more confident in their ability to make new friends. Going on family walks is one way to make this easier. Encourage kids to greet people they pass on the sidewalk or street. Even a wave can be a signal to others that you are approachable.
Giving compliments to other kids (for example, “I like your mask—where did you get it?”) is another way to start a conversation. When they do have an opportunity to interact with others, you can coach your child in other ways to start a conversation. Questions such as “How do you like school? What’s your favorite subject? What do you like to do for fun? What video games do you play?” are all good ways kids can try to get to know others. If your child struggles with what to say, or freezes up when they actually encounter other kids, try role-playing at home. This can reduce their anxiety.
How Parents Can Facilitate Friendships
Kids who have been separated from one another for a long time may need a nudge from parents. Think about other families that you may have not seen during this time. Reach out to parents of your children’s friends and see what their thoughts are on getting together. Suggest a nature walk or visiting a playground. Some games easily allow for socially distanced play. Croquet, bocce ball, or a beanbag toss games can easily be played while maintaining a safe distance. Biking is also a safer activity. Yes, it’s true that many kids resist outdoor activities and will stay on screens for as many hours as you will allow. You might encounter some resistance, at least at first. And you may have to resort to using gaming as an incentive for engaging in healthier activities.
If your child wants to make more friends, starting with people they already know would be a good start. You may need to help them come up with ways to ask. For example, “I am looking to make some new friends. You know me pretty well. Do you know of anyone who you think I might get along with?”
Another option is to develop group activities with the friends they already have. For example, your child might be open to starting a science club or a nature club. They can invite friends as well as friends of friends to get larger numbers. This can be a great way of expanding their social circles.
Some neighborhoods have had food-sharing events, such as a cookie exchange. If there are new people in your neighborhood, consider dropping off some homemade cookies, brownies, or other treats. These are easy enough for kids to bake. Sharing with current friends, even if that means driving to share or exchange goodies, can make for a fun outing.
Eileen Kennedy-Moore and Christine McLaughlin wrote a free eBook titled Growing Friendships During the Coronavirus Pandemic for kids ages six to twelve who are feeling lonely. The authors suggest lots of ways to play online or via video chat. For example, you can play the card game War by having each person use their own deck of cards. If your card is higher than your friend’s card, you keep your card. If not, they keep their card. Whoever has the biggest pile at the end wins. Guessing games are easy to do too.
You might suggest to your kids that they come up with their own calling cards. They can include their names and contact information. They can even add a picture so kids remember who they are. This makes it easier to connect with others, especially in situations where interacting with others may be difficult, such as schools where social distancing and masking are required.
Be sure to prepare your child for disappointment if their attempts to connect with others don’t work out. If they were not close friends at the time they last met, they may not even remember each other well, especially for younger kids. Also, not all families will be interested in facilitating get-togethers, and some kids may feel they already have enough friends.
Let’s face it. We are all sick of Zoom meetings and online learning activities. Many schools are slowly allowing some students to return to the classrooms, which is encouraging. If vaccination rates continue to climb and community spread decreases, as experts predict, we should be in much better shape by the summer. Be sure to reassure your children that things will get better if they can hold on just a little longer.
Dr. James J. Crist is the clinical director and a staff psychologist at the Child and Family Counseling Center (CFCC) in Woodbridge, Virginia, and a substance abuse counselor, working with addictive disorders in teens and adults. At CFCC, he provides psychological testing and individual, couples, and family psychotherapy for children, adolescents, and adults, specializing in children with ADHD, depression, and anxiety disorders. Visit his website at jamesjcrist.com.
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