As Schools And Other Activities Resume In Person, Kids (And Their Parents) May See Differences In Their Friendships
With more and more school, sports, and other extracurricular programs for kids starting in person, children, as well as their parents, may realize that their friendships are not as close as before the pandemic. The Wall Street Journal spoke to our Founder and Clinical Director Matt Lundquist about how the pandemic has impacted kids’ friendships and what parents can do to get their kids back to socializing with peers in person in “After COVID-19 Lockdowns, Children Struggle to Rekindle Close Relationships.”
Since this is an experience many kids and their parents will be confronting this fall, it seemed crucial to extend the discussion here:
Some Of The Shifts In Childhood Friendships, Even During COVID, Is Developmental
Before delving into how COVID affected friendships for children, it’s important to note that even under more normal circumstances as children change physically and cognitively, the quality of their relationships changes. Toddlers engage in parallel play, meaning there is less playing together and more playing alongside one another. When kids get older, their friendships become more interactive.
From early elementary school through to middle school, children develop stronger preferences. As they grow, these preferences become more defined and more organized around their particular interests. For instance, kids who are into soccer are more likely to be drawn, at least in part, to other kids who like soccer. And as kids get even older, they take over from teachers and parents as the facilitators of their friendships through making their own plans.
Individual kids also change. While this could be a function of the particular ways they’re developing and the changing shape of their interests, it can also be a response to a particular life event such as their parents’ divorce or changing schools.
COVID Created A Time Away From Friends During Development And Individual Changes
COVID forced an extended time away from peers, a period of a year or more for many kids. This stretch of time can be quite significant, especially in developmental time for young kids. One consequence is that children’s capacity and interests changed significantly without the benefit of a surfeit of peers that children have been interacting with regularly. Some of the natural shifts in friendships haven’t been able to happen.
This means many kids will have to find anew just who their people are, as well as work to rekindle old friendships. As Matt explains in The Wall Street Journal, “Think about those friendships as starting new…who you were 1.5 years ago might be different.”
Children Are Also Out Of Practice With Making And Deepening Friendships
Beyond developmental and individual changes, COVID itself was a change. Many kids had a hiatus from being engaged in in-person relationships with peers. For young kids who weren’t able to make use of screens to connect, they lacked peer relationships, to degrees, altogether.
There are, of course, kids who have access and are old enough that are able to connect on tablets. Maintaining friendships remotely is great, but it doesn’t play to every kid’s strength. This can be tricky. Some of these kids who have become used to connecting this way may need a push to engage in person. There’s a sense of inertia.
Overall, many kids are “out of practice” at the complicated pragmatics of making and deepening friendships. There’s a way that kids (and adults) are out of shape in regards to the skills of approaching friends to play, making small talk, navigating conflict, making plans, and adapting to disrupted plans. For kids who struggle in this area, either due to being more introverted and shy or perhaps due to a disability or developmental differences, this challenge is especially stark.
How Can Parents Nudge Kids To Rekindle Friendships Or Make New Friends?: Help Get Them Back In The Game
For parents, the most essential thing to do is to get kids back in the game. Most kids, though not all, can shake the cobwebs off and relearn how to engage and navigate the nuances of friendship. For kids who are young enough to benefit from parental help, arranging a playdate is of value. Teachers and school counselors can also help.
However, some kids may need more help than that. We tend to think of playdates as hands-off for parents, but parents joining in to a degree may be useful such as playing catch, playing a board game, or providing structure and suggesting specific activities that might set kids up for success. In addition, coaching from parents can also help, including giving kids space to talk about what is making them nervous or what they’re finding tough about returning to in-person socializing.