The pandemic interrupted our kids’ friendships. How to help

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Editor’s Note: This story is the second in a series looking at ways we can help our children restore, with patience and love, some of what the pandemic has taken away.

CNN  — 

The past few pandemic years have not made for ideal circumstances for our children to make or deepen friendships.

At first, there was physical isolation, a clear and obvious hindrance to building or maintaining connection. Then we moved on to navigating each individual family’s Covid-19 policies. Sure, our kids want to hang out. But are the parents and caregivers on the same page with masking, open windows and runny-nose monitoring? This was hard enough to determine with old friends, let alone with a family we’d just met.

Things loosened, many parents and caregivers let their guards down a bit, but by then the kids were rusty. Maybe they had friends, but from the parents’ and caregivers’ perspective, something was missing: an intimacy or dependency they recalled from their childhood friendships. Or maybe your kids went through the school year without reporting much in the way of anything about friends, new or old. Sometimes, this lack of connection didn’t even seem to bother them.

“There was nothing we could do about social setbacks,” said Anya Kamenetz, an education reporter and author of the upcoming book “The Stolen Year: How COVID Changed Children’s Lives, and Where We Go Now.” “Now there is some social catching up to do.”

Odds are that all of our kids could use a little help rebuilding social ties as they enter this school year. Here are some ways to approach this latest challenge.

The challenge: Parents and caregivers, we can help our kids make new friends, and deepen friendships with current friends without embarrassing them on the playground or in group texts. Helicopter parenting is not necessary.

Why it’s important: Friendships are an essential part of childhood, experts say. Not only for the self-evident reasons that connecting with others feels good, but also because they create important developmental opportunities that lead to higher functioning at school and in life.

“For young people, a lot of how they are building their identity is through their peers,” said Karen VanAusdal, senior director of practice at CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning. “Friendships are the places where we get to try out new ideas, practice new social skills, branch out of our comfort zone, and share our feelings.” As important as family bonds are, friends provide a critical social outlet outside the family, where children can have more space to figure out who they are, she said.

Here are several expert-approved ways to approach it.

Start at the beginning

“Kids need to practice small things, like introducing themselves. Things as simple as “Hello, my name is … What is your name? Do you want to play with me?” VanAusdal said. “Help them with conversation starters, how to talk about apologizing and sharing, and have them practice with their family first.”

Last week, our 5-year-old – who tends to struggle in new social situations – had his first kindergarten playdate. As we were preparing him for meeting his new classmates the night before, I put this advice to work. Sadly, we had never explicitly taught him how to introduce himself before.

He didn’t exactly ace it the next day — according to his reports, he forgot to share his name, or ask kids their names — but that script in his head made him feel more comfortable going up to new kids and asking them if they wanted to play.

Model curiosity

“I think parents can help their kids develop deeper friendships by asking their kids questions about their friends,” said Maurice J. Elias, professor of psychology at Rutgers University in New Jersey and coauthor of “Emotionally Intelligent Parenting.” “One of the reasons friendships aren’t as deep, is because a lot of times kids are just focused on themselves.”

If your kids are like mine, they won’t know the answer to half of the questions you ask them about their friends, new and old. But I have noticed that our asking those questions on a regular basis has made our children excited to share any new details they learn about their friends with us. (Except for the times when they let me know there are secrets involved, which is a sign of curiosity, too.)

Modeling curiosity can take place in fictional realms as well. “Read books or watch movies together, and then talk about how the character is feeling. It is a really great way to have a conversation about feelings,” Kamenetz said. In my experience, kids might not put the lessons they took from “Trolls World Tour” and their classroom dynamic together immediately, but these insights tend to seep out over time, and in meaningful ways.

You can also talk about your own life, which isn’t as exciting as a movie or TV show but has the added value of being real. “Share examples of how friendship is important for you, so young people begin to understand the value of maintaining friendships over time,” VanAusdal said.

Be open about potential friends

We parents and caregivers, whether we realize it or not, tend to have ideas about who is a suitable friend for our children, and who isn’t. Kamenetz suggests we broaden our ideas about what kind of friends our kids might make, and where those friends might come from. “Some kids are going to do better with kids that are younger, and some might do better with kids who are older. Be supportive of that, too.”

Preach inclusivity. Be proactive about making sure your kids know that everyone belongs, and everyone is potential friend material. “We can all think of ways of how to be better allies and work on being more inclusive of kids in our class who are neurodivergent, or who come from different races or religions (than our family),” Kamenetz said.

One bonus about discussing inclusivity in our house is that it has made our kids feel more comfortable about their differences — whether it’s a quirky hobby, or the fact that we are Jewish. By envisioning a world that is an inclusive place, they see themselves as belonging too, and enter social situations a little more sure-footed.

Limit playdate screentime

This one is an evergreen, but try, if you can, to encourage analog play.

“Friendships can get stuck in the stage of parallel play for too long, because of electronic devices,” Elias said. Parallel play, which is common in very young children, is when children are playing next to each other, but not engaging with each other. This kind of play makes it hard to connect through conversation, which is the bread and butter of lasting relationships, he said.

For kids who might need a small dose of digital time to help feel comfortable socializing again, Elias suggests trying to get them to play a game that is collaborative. “Make sure there is interaction and conversation, and they are working together on something,” he said.

Take it slow

Whether they have clinically diagnosed anxiety disorder or they are neurodiverse or a little extra sensitive to the social stresses of the pandemic, there are some kids who will need more hand-holding or support than others when it comes to repairing friendships and friend-making. The most important thing is to take it slow, experts say.

All of the above guidance may take longer, or happen in fits and starts or small doses, and that’s OK. Getting the school involved can help, too. Kamentez said she has heard of some schools doing lunch bunches — small groups of kids who eat lunch with a teacher in a classroom, or somewhere else far away from the potentially overwhelming cafeteria.

“My younger daughter was expressing angst about birthday parties,” Kamentez said. “But I knew it was not helpful to just say to her ‘Hey, why don’t you want to go to a birthday party! They are fun,’ and instead tell her that we just have to go for five minutes, and then we can leave.”

The first time, they followed that plan. But each consecutive time they stayed longer and longer, and her daughter had more and more fun — all at the pace that worked for her.

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