As a parent of a 9th grade daughter, I can tell you firsthand that young people are feeling disconnected from friends, and, at the same time, others seem to be able to maintain the sense of close friendships. This may not hold true from all of their pre-COVID friends, but at least for a few.
Of course, as parents, we worry about our kids in these incredibly challenging social times. I have spoken with teachers, school administrators and counselors who feel these concerns for their students too.
My kids tell me that I grew up in “the dark ages.” What that means is that I actually had to talk to my friends on the phone or face to face. Today, youth have the internet to connect with friends, but with such convenience comes a multitude of potential dangers! Can you relate to this as a parent? They are no longer talking with friends over an old fashioned telephone (my kids didn’t know that phones had rotary dials); now they are dealing with actually seeing what they cannot be a part of, seeing ongoing intense negative news, and the list goes on.
Today, I want to suggest that we focus on talking with our kids about appreciating any goodness or joys that are happening in their friendships. I want to ask them in what ways has our tech revolution been helpful during this pandemic.
Full disclosure here. I am not a psychologist, psychiatrist or MD. I am a father of four, which has provided 24 years of on the job training. With that said, here are some ideas to spark productive conversations related to friendships, both in general and now, during COVID.
What Makes A Strong Friendship?
This is a perfect question to get your children thinking about their current friends as well as those form the past. In my time as a public school teacher or working in churches, whenever I’ve asked this question, more often than not, I got the same reply, “Someone I can trust.” If you have a middle school aged child that answers this, it’s no surprise since this is most common within their age group.
The issue of trust is an important one. Not only for your child as it relates to their friends but for your child with other adults. When discussing trust, someone invariably talks about a friend who betrayed their trust. From there, try to gently ask about how things got resolved.
It is so important that kids know that a strong friendship does not mean that it’s always bluebirds and butterflies! Often, our most precious friendships are the ones in which we experience some pain and hardships. When you bring this up, I bet you will find your child nodding their head, because they can remember arguments, exclusions, and other issues that have transpired with good friends. Perhaps right now is a good time to use technology to reach out to a friend and try to work out a conflict that still lingers, ideally using FaceTime or something more personal. Not a text or email where feeling and emotion remain hidden or misconstrued.
Have Any Friendships Been Strengthened Recently?
My daughter told me that a cool thing about online schooling is that she has recognized her truest friends and has been able to focus on them, and not be distracted and “annoyed” by other people. She has also talked to other students in groups in her class breakout rooms that she may not have otherwise talked with. Prior to virtual school, her classes did very little group work.
How Are People Making New Friends?
I’ve heard some kids say they feel that they have gotten to know someone better by playing video games with them. I have spoken with other kids who have started study groups to get to know new people. Another 9th girl told my daughter that she knew a girl for a couple of years in school, but they never talked much. Now they are in a study group together over Zoom and getting to know each other much better. Now she feels hopeful this will develop into a lasting friendship.
Have You Made Connections With Any Past Friends?
Does your child have a friend they haven’t seen for a long time? Maybe you can surprise them by having their old friend be on a Zoom call with you and then you tilt the screen to your child with a big “SURPRISE” do you remember …?
What Social Skills Are Helpful?
When I was a teacher, we talked a lot about “social skills,” but what does this mean? What comes to mind for your kids when they hear those two words together.
One example is being an active listener. But how do we know when someone is being an active listener? I try to repeat back at times points someone has made and, of course, ask questions about what they are talking about.
Another great skill to teach our children is to ask other people questions about that person. Not just the passing, “Hey, how are you?” But really ask because you care how they will respond. It’s teaching your children to give the gift of their time and attention, even if it’s only a few seconds. People love it when people show interest in them. Other examples of skills include being able to navigate conflicts well and skills around being respectful of others. For example, working to ensure everyone in a class gets a turn to talk and working to stay engaged with what they say.
You may hear adults say things such as, “Social skills really only happen when kids are face to face.” I don’t think it’s so black and white. Being mindful and skillful at how one interacts with other people online is very important. In-person skills and online skills share similarities and also have many differences. Discussing the ways, they are similar and different is key. One question could be, “How do you show empathy to a friend online vs. in person?”
Some additional ideas for conversation starters with your children:
- What are the positive friendships happening in your life right now? And how has technology helped?
- Has your circle of friends dwindled, stayed the same, or expanded during this time?
- Do you think you will want to spend more in-person time with your friends once it is safe than you did before the pandemic?