(Karyn Morton; Parenting Psychoeducational Review; Psychotherapy of Children & Adolescence; Wayne Stare University; Dr. Erica Bockneck, 7/15/2022)
In 2022 Kendrick Lamar dropped his last album, and it was full of references to the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic…”you’re back outside, but they still lied”… referencing the stay at home, social distancing, and mask mandates ending, but the real world changes the pandemic would cause being hidden and kept from the masses. It was a true project on art mimicking real life, and speaking to the human condition, a new human condition unlike the one we lived in pre-March 2020, for adults, but particularly for children.
I am the parent of a 17-year old child who was 14 when the pandemic started. He came home in February 2020 a six foot tall, round faced, silly, young boy who liked video games and got straight As. He went back to school two years later as a 6’5”, super handsome young man with facial hair, caring much less about grades, much more about how he would craft a life for himself that didn’t rely on one career and super aware of the lucrative future in technology security and coding. Over that time, gaming became less of a past-time and more of a necessity. His cellphone attached to his fingertips much like my landline clear slimline phone was permanently attached to my ear as a teen. These changes were obvious as a parent, but the reasons why much less obvious. Since kids are facing their upcoming school year as their first full year in three years , its very helpful for parents to understand how their lives have shifted so we can help them succeed going forward.
Parental understanding and education is very important to ensuring the mental health of children as there is a triangular relationship between child, parent, and therapist in the therapeutic space. (Liverpool et al, 2021). So giving parents some perspective on the changes and stages their children are going through is imperative to properly support their emotional wellness. According to Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, the teenage years is when one’s identity is developed, and this is shaped largely by their relationships with other people, specifically their peers. How they see themselves in the world, their sense of self, and autonomy are areas teens are developing which are all heavily influenced by peer relationships (Smith-Adcock, S. & Tucker, C., 2016).
During this time teens are also going through a variety of physical, cognitive, and emotional changes. First they are going through a series of changes to their bodies, associated with puberty. They are also, based on Piaget’s cognitive theory, thinking more abstractly about the world around them, including their social world. (Danner, 1989). All of these developmental factors are at play when considering how teens are experiencing the world and change.
The majority of childhood peer relationships, particularly friendships, are developed in school by same aged children. (Rubin et al, 2007). These friendships, when given time to cultivate during this important time of our lives, often last well into adulthood as I am still friends with most of my high school peers and even my mom, just had dinner a few days ago with her two best friends from Osborne (Detroit Public High School) graduating class of 1969. During the pandemic kids worldwide had to attend school virtually from February 2020 until approximately March 2022, and even not fully for all students even then. Kids were socially isolated from one another and physically separated, so they had limited means to maintain friendships. It is understandable how being at home could therefore play a huge part in teens ability and opportunity to build relationships.
In a study by Rubin et al. (2007), on the affects of the pandemic for kids 5-14, kids noted that missing their friends, lacking face to face interaction, and not having the opportunity to interact with other people besides family made that time and isolation particularly difficult. They also spoke of using virtual communication as a means to lessen these affects, but not totally negating the loss of comraderie and intimacy. Kids noted that virtually they couldn’t play or have fun with friends, they lacked the consistent support seeing their friends daily provided, and their connection (hugs, smiles, laughs) with friends was nonexistent. (Rubin et al, 2007). Anytime there is loss there may also be grief or trauma. So, this data is important so parents can understand the importance of kids’ personal relationships and the loss and trauma that results from isolation from friends.
To further understand, I spoke with several teens above 14 to gain an understanding of how they processed the lack of social interaction during the pandemic and it’s results on their well being. It was clear from their responses that their more mature abstract thinking resulted in them looking for ways to connect and interact that went beyond the physical world into the digital one. (Hamilton, 2022). Kids talked at length about using social media more, and finding multiple methods such as text, phone calls, gaming, Reddit, Discord, and multiple other modalities to maintain friendships and make new friendships despite being physically separated.
All six of the kids I spoke to named multiple ways they interacted and didn’t seem to have much difficulty, particularly with other same sex teens, maintaining and being supported by and supportive to their friends. All the teens stated they had a harder time building new friendships with the opposite sex, because boys and girls were into different things. For example, girls were more into social media and boys more into gaming. They also all reported less opportunity to develop romantic relationships as there was a physical connection needed with another person upon which attraction and romantic intimacy was based, which they all lacked, that couldn’t be duplicated through digital means. All noted a decrease in a academic competitiveness among peers and personally, as learning was more difficult and motivation was harder to maintain virtually. Lastly, about half noted it was hard to reestablish friendships in person because they had all gotten used to being isolated and connecting virtually, even though it wasn’t ideal.
While this wasn’t a scientific based study, it was an attempt to gain a greater understanding on how the pandemic affected older teens. The sample was very homogenous as all the teens were kids of friends of mine with very similar backgrounds, racial and cultural identity, socioeconomic status, and educational success. However, the point was just to give some perspective on how older teens experienced changes in their peer interactions during the pandemic. It is clear, that overall, they experienced less feelings of loss than younger kids, but did see both negative and positive affects. Kids over 14 relied upon unique methods to maintain interaction, but still missed out on some important areas of social growth during the pandemic.
This may signify the importance of parents noticing young adults delaying romantic relationships, being less interested in competing for position moving forward, and connecting less face to face and more via virtual, digital, online methods. These things aren’t necessarily problematic, but when they point to difficulty interacting face to face, it is helpful for parents to find or promote activities that are in person. Some aspects of socio-emotional growth may not have matured as teens attempted to figure out how to maintain resilience during a time of uncertainty. (Mlawler F. et al., 2022). Developing lasting friendships, romantic relationships, and relationships built upon healthy competition are all necessary as one moves into adulthood. Even older teens may need increased support in becoming more self-aware and being reminded and expected to engage offline as well.
Older teens did use various modes of virtual and digital communication to interact to lessen the detrimental affects of social isolation. So parents need to see increased phone, internet, and gaming time in this light and use less reductivism when dealing with kids time using social media. (Hamilton, 2022). Kids may need increased slack and reduced judgement on how often they use technology, because so much if that time was spent using these methods to interact with, enjoy, and support their friendships. These relationships are valuable not only as the fundamental building blocks of all human interaction, but also in helping kids develop into adults who have healthy relationships.
The better parents understand how to support their kids’ resilience during periods of extreme change, trauma, and social isolation, the better teens will recover when societal issues threaten their peer interactions. Since peer interaction is a very important part of identity development and the transition from dependence to autonomy, it is important for parents to be able to identify and understand it’s importance. After the masks have been long retired and kids have gone a whole school year walking the halls of their beloved schools, parents will still need to support the changes the pandemic caused and help teens work through the lingering issues. After all, “it’s a whole world outside.” (Kendrick Lamar, N95), and kids might need to be reminded of that.
- Mlawler, F., Moore, C.C., Hubbard, J.A. et al. Pre-Pandemic Peer Relations Predict Adolescents’ Internalizing Response to Covid-19. Res Child Adolesc Psychopathol 50, 649–657 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-021-00882-1
- Liverpool, S., Pereira, B., Hayes, D. <em>et al.</em> A scoping review and assessment of essential elements of shared decision-making of parent-involved interventions in child and adolescent mental health.<em>Eur Child Adolesc Psychiatry</em> <strong>30, </strong>1319–1338 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00787-020-01530-7
- Danner, F. (Ed.). (1989). <em>The adolescent as decision-maker : Applications to development and education</em>. Elsevier Science & Technology.
- Smith-Adcock, S. & Tucker, C. (Ed.). (2016)Counseling Children and Adolescents: Connecting Theory, Development, and Diversity. SAGE Publications.
- Rubin, K. H., Bukowski, W. M., & Parker, J. G. (2007). Peer interactions, relationships, and groups. In W. Damon, R. M. Lerner, & N. Eisenberg (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology (Vol 3). John Wiley & Sons. <a class=”linkBehavior” href=”https://doi-org.proxy.lib.wayne.edu/10.1002/9780470147658.chpsy0310″>https://doi-org.proxy.lib.wayne.edu/10.1002/9780470147658.chpsy0310
- Hamilton, J. L., Nesi, J., & Choukas-Bradley, S. (2022;2021;). Reexamining social media and socioemotional well-being among adolescents through the lens of the COVID-19 pandemic: A theoretical review and directions for future research.<em> Perspectives on Psychological Science, 17</em>(3), 662-679. <a rel=”noreferrer noopener” href=”https://doi.org/10.1177/17456916211014189″ target=”_blank”>https://doi.org/10.1177/17456916211014189
*A special thank you to O. Flood, M. Goodrum, M. Ligons, A. Little, K. Mishaw, and B. Morton for participating.