Last summer, Elisabeth*, a mom who lives in New York, began noticing that her tween daughter wasn’t getting along with her best friend. The girls had been close for the past four years, however, in adhering to social distance, text messaging had replaced trips to the mall and sleepovers, thus masking signs of a rift.
“Small tiffs started blowing up over text but there was no face-to-face nuance to soften things,” remarked Elisabeth. Eventually, miscommunication snowballed into hurt feelings that phone calls and a hastily-organized outdoor playdate couldn’t repair. And while the girls are heading back to school this month, their friendship hasn’t recovered.
Experts have imparted the academic and mental health setbacks of children over the pandemic — and rightly so. But social interaction, a key piece of child development, is another subject worth exploring. Last year, friend networks shrank by way of social distancing, pandemic pods, and small classroom cohorts; video conferencing technology, while a convenient and safe replacement for in-person interaction, is known to skew context and interfere with social cues. For some kids, the result has been a sense of awkwardness with formerly close friends or, as the case with Elisabeth’s daughter, an outright end to relationships. And as our kids head back to school in-person this year, those issues may be front and center.
We’ll have to see how the pandemic has touched the social development of children, however a recent survey of 3,000 middle and high school students conducted by learning platform company Brainly is informative: When asked what students were least excited about this year: 16.4 said being around groups of people (for older kids their reason was “social anxiety”); 14.4 percent cited bullying or “school drama.” And 57.1% of parents say they’re worried about the effects of isolation on children’s social and emotional development during the school year.
“In my practice, I’m seeing that children are generally excited about returning to school and seeing their friends, but others, particularly those who were bullied or who did not experience school as a nurturing environment, are sadder to return,” Houston, Texas-based psychiatrist Dr. Dawn Brown tells SheKnows. “Other kids aren’t sure how to feel.” And Dr. Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills-based psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent, tells SheKnows that anxiety over peer acceptance is a concern for students, including those starting new schools and moving up a grade level. “Some are worried, ‘What if I don’t have a group to sit with at lunch?” she says.
Kids will need time to adjust, says Brown. “There will be a new normal on the playground or in the classroom as kids refine soft skills like sharing, rule-following, and problem-solving.”
Why Friendships May Change
Additionally, children will be managing their relationships more independently, unlike during lockdown when adults had a heavier hand in their social lives. “The pandemic forced certain friendships while alienating others,” Dr. Francyne Zeltser, a New York-based child psychologist tells SheKnows. For example, geography and convenience may have united local kids who otherwise weren’t close, pods were established by parents with similar values or socioeconomic backgrounds, and some kids were completely isolated from friends to prevent high-risk family members (or themselves) from severe COVID-19 outcomes.
And safety precautions will inadvertently affect peer relations: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal indoor masking in recent guidance for K-12 students, though only a handful of states require masks, potentially segregating kids whose families don’t agree on face coverings or other safety values. “For example, if kids are hanging out after school in a group but one family doesn’t feel comfortable with that,” says Brown. “Or, there may be social-emotional gaps among kids enrolled in independent study or virtual learning programs versus in-person learners.” And plexiglass dividers and social-distancing stickers “absolutely impact the meaningful relationships kids have in their lives — from peers to teachers,” Dr. Kristen Barber, an associate professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, tells SheKnows.
Still, friendship, and the social dexterity necessary to sustain it, are salient. “Friendship is a survival skill that [ensures] we belong in a group, as we’ve learned through studies on early humans and social animals,” Dr. Margarita Azmitia, a professor of psychology at the University of California Santa Cruz tells SheKnows. “Children need social [connections] with their peers because these are our first horizontal relationships, meaning, that are similar in power,” unlike those between siblings with age differences or parents, which helps develop empathy, a trait that Stanford University has identified with fostering closeness.
What Children and Parents Can Expect
This year, students can anticipate a mix of old and new social rules. “The school setting is hierarchical and challenges with popularity will still be there — when kids were learning at home, there wasn’t room for that to blossom,” says Azmitia. So stuff like who gets chosen first on a sports team or sits together at lunch, she says, may deepen as kids search for belonging at higher intensities.
Eve, the mother of an 8th-grade student in Massachusetts, is particularly concerned about cliques. “One girl has started excluding my daughter in group Facetime calls by telling private jokes,” she says. “And her other friends have developed differing degrees of social anxiety — one preferred to video chat from her bed rather than meet at a park. It seemed like no one wanted to hang out in person after so much time at home.”
Azmitia points out that, until now, many kids haven’t interacted with sizable groups in structured settings, so remembering how to behave at school could be challenging. Therefore, adds Dr. Chris Kearney, director of the Child School Refusal and Anxiety Disorders Clinic at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, kids may need to “code switch,” changing their behavior (or speech) to fit into a certain environment. “If a child with an expressive family that interrupts each other brings that interaction style to school, they could get in trouble,” he tells SheKnows. “So that’s confusing and [requires] some sensitivity [from others].”
Helping Kids Navigate Their Friendships
How can parents help children who feel disconnected from or are nervous about seeing their peers? Solutions should hinge on age and maturity level, however, a role-playing exercise can prepare kids. “Ask, ‘What are you most nervous about this year — sitting alone at lunch?” suggests Zeltser. Then strategize outcomes like asking a friend to meet outside the cafeteria before walking in together. “Helping kids understand their options will lessen anxiety because they can anticipate what to expect,” she says.
However, a child’s ability for self-expression is related to their developmental phase. “Ages zero to 6 are the early childhood years where kids are more forthcoming about their thoughts and feelings, including who played with them and who didn’t,” explains Walfish. “Whereas 7 to 12 is the latency phase when kids tend to go ‘underground’ — their defenses are gelling into place and it takes more work to chip away at what they are thinking and feeling.” She suggests that parents ask their kids open-ended questions about their school day and watch for changes in appetite, sleep, or mood, all of which can flag depression.
And class parents should stay connected, with limits. If kids argue, complaining to another parent can violate your child’s privacy or wishes, even with good intentions, says Zeltser. Though Walfish gives this caveat: “If there’s an age or power discrepancy between two kids, parents may want to get involved,” adding that questions like, “Have you thought about how you want to handle this?” teaches children to independently problem-solve.
That said, not all children’s friendships will resume — some will be slow-growing while others won’t get off the ground. Either way, Zeltser points out that healthy friendships are mutual. “It’s important to remind your child that while everyone should be kind, we don’t have to be friends with everyone and kids have a say in their relationships.”
Children are generally resilient, however according to Barber that narrative is often misunderstood. “Resiliency refers to the ability to spring back and to recover quickly,” she notes. “There is an assumption about full recovery here, and kids who fall off their bikes might be able to hop right back on them—they are resilient. However, there are debates amongst disaster scholars about the helpfulness and even appropriateness of using the term ‘resilience’ because springing back is hard, if not impossible, with experiences of crises and trauma.”
Rather, she says, “Families should begin embracing the possibilities for what our lives — and friendships — can look like under these new circumstances.”
*Elisabeth and Eve requested that SheKnows change their names for privacy reasons.