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At the best of times, tween friendships are tricky and changing and inevitably hit the hook. When you are cut off from your peers during the pandemic, you feel left out or bullied online, or you are an open target for gossip.
Phyllis Fagell, psychotherapist, school counselor, and author of Middle School Matters, shares insights into what your child may be experiencing or feeling with concrete approaches you can use to help your tweens and teenagers during this time of social isolation and long after.
Guest post by Phyllis Fagell, LCPC:
Middle school students have to navigate a complex social landscape under the best of circumstances. They care deeply about their friends, but their empathy develops, they are insecure, and they are still learning how to regulate and interpret non-verbal cues on their own. They are also in puberty, mature at very different speeds and deal with well-meaning but equally unskilled colleagues.
As the pandemic and social distancing add a new layer of stress, there are four ways you can help your child stay confident and connected.
Explain that social distancing can increase sensitivity
“I feel left out,” said Claire *, 11. Her friends had met at the House Party, a video conferencing platform for children, for the last few nights, and no one had thought of calling them. She wasn’t sure if they wanted to shut her out, but she couldn’t stop thinking about the mistake.
Just a few weeks earlier, Claire would have personally cleared the air the next day. Or she would have decided to blow it up if everything seemed normal enough in school. Instead, she just felt sad and insecure.
If your child feels wounded because of a perceived recklessness, acknowledge their hurt feelings and encourage them to be expansive. Ask questions like, “Is it possible that they thought you knew about the call, or that one of your friends tried to contact you?” Explain that they may feel more sensitive because they lack opportunities for organic, positive interactions.
Then help them run the agency. Finding solutions together. You might ask, “Could you have a house party meet for another night this week?” Or ask them if they’d like to share their feelings with someone in their friend group.
Check your online behavior on site
“Naomi told everyone that my parents were fighting all the time,” 12-year-old Zoe told me. “I trusted that she said nothing.” As the pandemic turns everyone’s lives upside down, the children absorb the fear of their surroundings. And tweens who are afraid tend to be more impulsive and less empathetic. To get attention, they can reveal someone’s secret or post a mean comment.
Regularly check your children’s texts and snapshots, evoke atrocities without embarrassing them, and help them find positive ways to deal with darker emotions such as jealousy or anger. This is a good time to remind them to get on their hands and count to 60 before posting anything and quietly wonder if their words might harm someone else or come back to haunt them.
Since tweens spend significantly more time online for both academia and socializing, plan some screen-free time as well. Children who never get a break from social media tend to suffer more from FOMO or are scared of missing out, and feel worse too.
Remind your child that they can pick up a phone and call a friend at any time, but they can maintain their confidence by limiting the time they spend chasing likes or on other people’s social media feeds lurk
Help them interact comfortably with their peers
“I’m worried about Colin,” the mother of a sixth grader told me. “Nobody calls him or asks him to do anything virtually, and he doesn’t call anyone either. He’s lonely and upset, but I don’t know how to help him. ”
No two children have the same social needs. An extrovert will miss regular personal interactions, but he will also find alternative ways to connect with friends. For introverts, social distancing might be a relief. You no longer have to spend all day at school and possibly into the night interacting with your peers. If this describes your child, don’t pressure them to talk to others online more often. When he’s satisfied, let him lead his own social life. Otherwise, your son or daughter may feel judged or fearful of abandoning you.
I am most concerned about the third group of children. These are children who want to be liked but were isolated even before they shut down because they have difficulty connecting with their peers. If your child falls into this camp, use the time to improve your skills. You now have far more access to their interactions. Therefore, watch their behavior. Do you interrupt? Are you trying to dominate a conversation? Are you doing something physically repulsive on the screen? Are you trying too hard to be funny in an online class?
Be nice but direct. For example, help them understand that if someone looks away while they are talking, it is a sign that they are bored. Help them find common ground. Encourage them to get curious and ask questions. When unable to converse, they suggest playing video games or watching the same movie at the same time as a peer.
Talk to their teachers and counselors. There may be online lunch groups, book clubs, or other more structured, inclusive activities that allow them to hang out with classmates. Also think of teletherapy. Many practices already offer online social skills groups.
Help them get out of their own mind
When children fixate on social loss, you are helping them overcome themselves. You can’t spare them the disappointment of missing a sports season or being unable to celebrate their birthday with friends, but you can try to draw their attention to others who are feeling even more disconnected. Tweens want to make a difference in the world.
As much as possible, give them responsibility for how they help others. Tweens strive to assert their independence, so many of them find it difficult to stay at home with their parents 24/7.
Discuss your options instead of dictating your decisions. Are you trying to reach out to a classmate who you have heard is lonely? Do you want to make masks for first responders? Or maybe you want to create works of art or write letters to residents of assisted living facilities or hospital patients who cannot have visitors?
Don’t give up if your child is initially negative or indifferent. When they see that they can change the circumstances of others, they will build self-confidence. They may also be more grateful for what they have than focusing on what they are missing.
It is not possible to protect children from all disappointment at the best of times, much less during a crisis. But there may be a benefit to the discomfort they are currently experiencing.
Emily Bianchi, Assistant Professor of Organization and Management at Emory University’s Goizueta School of Business, has studied adversity and found that forced periods of uncertainty later in life can lead to greater satisfaction, gratitude, and flexibility. Nobody would wish this to anyone, but your child can come out with skills they could never have acquired in the classroom.
* All names have been changed.