Image via CARLOS ALVAREZ/GETTY IMAGES 

The following is an excerpt from the brand new Distance Learning Playbook for Parents: How To Support Your Child’s Academic, Social and Emotional Development in Any Setting by Rosalind Wiseman, Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, and John Hattie

How to Help Your Child Maintain Friendships in COVID-19

 

Friends can be everything to a young person. Friendships allow young people to process the experience of growing up and feel connected to others. It’s fundamental to the human experience. It is central to the feeling of belonging that is so important to most of us. It is also the first experience children have navigating the complexities of healthy relationships and boundaries.

For some parents, there has been a tendency to worry if their child doesn’t have a lot of friends. But more important than having a large group of friends is having at least one person who “gets” us, who we can be ourselves around and we can depend on. But friendships, especially in school, have always been complex. Sometimes because of the natural rhythm of young people’s social dynamics, but also because of the influence of adults’ expectations.

We often adopt the personality of our friends as we hang out with them more and it can lead to a loss of self-identity as we try to meet their expectations (ex. the hobbies they like, etc.). As a result, young people can be dynamic with their personalities, and cause up and downs with the relationships with their parents as they try to define themselves.  – Jake, 16 

In elementary school, you’re basically told that unless you are friends with everyone you are mean and a bully. So often people pretend to get along just to make things easier. As I got older, there were people I was friends with because they were in a class or activity with me. Sometimes I picked friends based on not having anyone else I knew. Sometimes I picked a friend because I had to be around them all the time, so it was easier for everyone if we got along than if we didn’t. Sometimes I was friends with someone just because they didn’t like another person, and we bonded. Friendship has levels and is as complicated for young people as it is adults. – Sara, 17

It’s important to remember that friendships are often multifaceted. Young people can show different facades to different people. How they show up with you may be very different than how they show up with their friends.  How they show up with one friend could be different than how they show up with other friends. How they show up to their friends online can be very different than how they show up in person. Young people maintain certain kinds of friendships in specific ways. Some friendships are maintained in group chats, in texts, some over social media, some by talking (in-person, on the phone, or video calls), others by online video games. They all matter. It is essential that your young person feels like you respect the importance of their friendships, even if they are struggling with them.  Take their concerns seriously, offer feedback without demeaning their friends, and remember that to young people digital connection feels as vital as in-person so avoid dismissing friends they have made online or prefer to only text or play video games with.

The importance of friendships in COVID-19

Friendships teach us what it means to be in relation with each other. They give us the opportunity to learn how to stay in relationship with people we care about while also learning how to maintain personal boundaries. When young people, like many of us, have conflicts with friends, we can understandably struggle between expressing our anger and worrying that doing so will end the friendships. This is one of the reasons why changing friend groups when a young person doesn’t like one or more of the people in their friendship group is way harder than just finding another group of friends. Especially now when it can feel like you have to hold on to the friends you do have because you have so few opportunities to meet new people.

Coming from such a small, suburban community like I do with an even smaller school where everyone knows each other from elementary to high school, it can be hard to leave those who you’ve known for years at fear of being shunned within your friend group, much less your class. – Charlie, 15

Friendships COVID

Domino Park in the Williamsburg, Brooklyn via Kathy Willens | AP

How are friendships in COVID-19 impacted by distance learning?

One of your responsibilities is ensuring that your child has a friend, someone they can talk with as they go through this new reality of school and socializing. But of course, how that happens has changed. Young people are having to quickly adjust from the way they made and maintained friendships before COVID to what will work for them now. In the spring, we saw friendship maintenance patterns emerge quickly. Some children and teens preferred “parallel play” by video call with one friend so they could study, watch movies, or do projects together. Others preferred hanging out with a small group after an online class to catch up. Others depended on online video games to maintain friendships. Others depended on long distance relationships from camp and other places to share what they were going through. And often a young person did some combination of the above.

All these strategies are great for maintaining connection with friends when the options to do so are so limited. You may see a major spike in time spent on their phones or other devices, which may worry some parents. While it is important to remain mindful of healthy tech use, if their phone is their only method of social connection at the moment, that is also an important factor to consider. This is an excellent opportunity to invite young people into the conversation and set rules together. If they feel heard and understood, it will likely decrease the amount of conflict around technology use.

All of this to say, friendships will be maintained online in ways that they never have before. Friendships in school help young people feel connected during the day. And young people are worried about how to maintain their friendships during this time. It’s similar to maintaining a long-distance relationship. The ease of just being in the same building or running into someone is gone. It takes much more work to be in relation with one another remotely and takes much more work to sustain relationships that miss the fleeting moments of socializing that makes you feel connected to others. Young people may be trapped in friendships since they have no one else to turn to or can’t socialize at school so they can meet new people. For the near future, it looks like we really are going to have to do our best to make the friendships we have work and that’s why handling conflict is so much more important than it was before. As parents, we have to acknowledge the complexity of friendships right now and understand that they may look drastically different than we would like. Spending hours playing a video game online together or watching a movie on FaceTime is valuable time young people are spending to build and maintain friendships.

With my school we have 1400 kids total and we are going to be divided into 3 groups of 475 that go into school every third day, when we don’t go in, we will be doing virtual learning. So, my main concern is that I won’t be able to see most friends and other kids at school. – Gus, 16

Take Action

How do we help young people know who they want to be friends with and how to maintain those friendships? Here’s an activity you can do with a young person that gives them the ability to develop the friendships that make them feel good and supported. Healthy friendships make everyone’s dignity feel important.

Avoid focusing on a particular person (for example, a child you may not like who they hang out with) while walking through this activity of creating the criteria for any friendship or relationship. We call this a Friendship Bill of Rights and it is an essential reference when a young person is thinking through a problem they have with a friend.

  • Identify the three most important qualities in a good/healthy friendship.
  • Identify the three most important qualities in a bad/unhealthy friendship.
  • Think about the quality of your friendships: Do your friends treat you according to what you value in a good friendship? Are you treating people according to what you say you value in a good friendship?

If the young person is struggling with a friendship, they can compare their list with how they would describe the friendship. Just don’t expect them to realize they are in an unhealthy friendship and break it off. That may be impossible right now. Encourage them to at least admit to themselves when the person is doing something against their friendship bill of rights. Remind then the smallest act of establishing personal boundaries to a friend like this is actually a really brave decision. Recognizing the state of their friendship gets them on the path to making better decisions about their friendships and other relationships in the future.

Remember…

  • Friendships make it possible to go through incredibly difficult times.
  • Young people will have different ways of maintaining those friendships and all of those ways are important to them.
  • We will have limits on our freedom to make new friends so it’s in our best interest to make the friendships we have work.
  • If we aren’t being treated with dignity in our friendships, then knowing how to articulate those feelings is essential to our well-being and ability to make friends who will.
  • Having a strategy like SEAL to have difficult conversations with friends can strengthen the friendship.
  • Make sure that the young person in your care feels that you know all the above.

The Distance Learning Playbook for Parents outlines supportive strategies for navigating virtual environments to ensure effective and impactful learning that aligns the needs and expectations of teachers, parents, and students alike.

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