Parents’ first concern when schools announce they are closing for the remainder of the semester is likely, “How am I going to maintain my child’s learning?” However, your child’s social and emotional development is also impacted by the loss of structured school time. While the schools are working hard to provide academic work to your child, you may find your efforts best suited to help your child with another consequence of school closing… their social life and developing social skills.
School time allows your child, whether they are a young child or a teenager, a structured reliable time each day when they can see their friends, practice social skills, and build relationships. Even if they talk to friends on social media or texting, there are invaluable skills your child builds by communicating face to face with their friends.
When your student has a disagreement with a classmate, they must go back to school and face the person the next day. This helps them try out the necessary skills of repairing relationships and getting along with people who may not necessarily be their favorite. When students have a disagreement with a teacher, they must face that teacher again within a couple of days, and work on ways to rebuild that relationship.
Many children and teens struggle with social anxiety, and going to school each day provides them with an environment that challenges their social interaction skills. They must walk into a crowded cafeteria and find their friends. They are called on by the teacher to answer a question in class or make a presentation at the front of the class.
In our own experiences working with children and teenagers, when they find out school is closing for the year, their first concern is about the loss of social opportunities and how to remain connected to their friends. Teenagers and older children, largely starting around middle school, highly value their social groups. Their friendships and social connectedness are seen as highly important parts of their life and identity.
Here are some concrete ways you can support your child’s social and emotional functioning during the chaos of COVID-19:
- For an elementary age child, help the child establish a routine of talking with their friends. They may choose an app such as Google Hangouts to meet with their friend group, or platforms such as FaceTime or Skype to meet with one friend at a time.
- If you were thinking of taking your child or teen’s phone away, you may want to reconsider. Phones are likely your child’s only way to stay connected with their friends. Taking your child’s phone away for a certain part of the day may be the better option. Many parents have found it helpful to have the child’s phone in another room while they are working on their online schoolwork, and it is advisable to charge a child’s or a teen’s phone in the parent’s bedroom overnight in order to avoid staying up late on their phones.
- Encourage your child or teen to come out of their room and spend time with family members. They can use this time to strengthen sibling relationships and continue to play cooperatively with others. Too many hours isolating in their room is not helpful for maintaining your child or teen’s mental health during this stressful time. It may be helpful to have certain times a day when a child or teen can be in their room, and other times when they are expected to be interacting with family.
- A fun activity that can help your child stay connected to friends can include writing a letter or drawing a picture to send to a friend in the old-fashioned regular mail. It’s always exciting to get mail, and this can give your child another activity to keep busy!
- Allow your child limited time on computer or video games where they are connected to their friends from school. In order to avoid your child spending too much time on games, it may be helpful to speak with their friend’s parents and agree on a time when they can all get onto a certain game.
- At school, your child and their peers had the opportunity to speak with school counselors and teachers when they were upset and needed support. With COVID-19 school closures, your child or teen likely lost this trusted adult they had a relationship with. It may be helpful to remind your child that you are available to support them through this difficult time. You can also remind them of other trusted adults, such as extended family members they can maintain relationships with. If you suspect a significant issue, reach out to a mental health provider, many of whom are offering telehealth.
The uncertainty and stress of COVID-19 affects us all, yet making a conscious effort to support continued social development and connectedness can ease the anxiety of your child or teen and likely yourself, too!