Last week a friend called me with an interesting problem. Her sixth-grade daughter asked to have a movie night with a friend, complete with popcorn and ice cream.
Since their family is now mostly vaccinated and there haven’t been any COVID cases at school in the last month, the mom said sure.
She was happy that her kiddo could finally start socializing again, feeling optimistic that perhaps things were beginning to return to normal.
She asked her daughter when she wanted her friend to come over, and her daughter looked confused. “Mom, I don’t want her to come over,” she said. “We’re going to do a watch party and I need snacks.”
After more than a year of social distancing, the opportunity to spend time with friends in person was finally available to her daughter — and she didn’t want it. And that freaked my friend out a little bit.
“Between online school and TikTok and everything else, I worry that it’s hurt her ability to communicate,” she said.
“She’s so used to dealing with people through screens. It’s become her normal. It’s like she’s less able and less willing to spend time with people face to face.”
My friend makes a good point. For some people, connection and communication have suffered as a result of the pandemic.
And to be honest, almost everything she said about her daughter also applies to me (and plenty of other adults).
For those of us with introverted tendencies, social distancing gave us the excuse we needed to avoid uncomfortable and unwanted social interactions.
Now that the world is opening back up, I find myself having to push through a level of discomfort that was not there pre-pandemic.
Many of us, kids and adults alike, find that it’s easier to stay home and text people than to force ourselves to put on real pants and awkwardly make small talk in public.
The bad news is that my friend isn’t wrong to be concerned about this.
For kids who are still developing and honing those skills, the past year may have slowed their progress in this area.
There’s plenty of good news, however. Disruptions create opportunity, and that’s where we find ourselves now. Here are five things to consider if you’re worried about this.
There’s plenty of good news, however. Disruptions create opportunity, and that’s where we find ourselves now.
Here are five things to consider if you’re worried about your child’s communication skills since the pandemic:
Good communication is a skill set that can be learned, practiced, and improved.
Some people are born great communicators; everyone else has to work at it. For most people, the more you do it, the easier it gets.
Depending on your child’s age and where they are developmentally, give them clear guidelines for good in-person communication (eye contact, active listening, reading and responding to verbal and physical cues) and plenty of opportunities to practice.
Screen time amplifies problems and challenges that kids are already facing.
If your child is impulsive and has trouble focusing, too much screen time
will likely make that worse.
If your child is shy, has difficulty talking to people, or relating to their peers, spending a lot of time online during the pandemic may have amplified those challenges.
This is especially true for our kids on the neuro-diverse squad.
While gaming and social media can level the social playing field for some kids, they can also enable the avoidance of more stressful face-to-face encounters.
Balancing in-person and online social time for these kids is critical to developing communication and coping skills in both areas. If you can’t manage in-person social time safely, try to pick a venue that allows for both verbal and visual interaction (like Skype or FaceTime).
Dealing effectively with other people is a skill, but it’s also a muscle. It may be time for some strength training.
For most kids, the number of people they regularly interacted with dramatically declined during the pandemic. Making the shift back to “normal” may be hard for some, particularly those for whom transitions are already a challenge.
Just like communication, dealing with other people is something we can practice and improve.
One way to build resilience is to work on something called “distress tolerance.”
If in-person social situations stress your kid out, have them build up to where they were pre-pandemic. Be sure to acknowledge the gains they’re making, so they can take ownership of working to overcome something that they struggled with.
Are we worried about communication or is the issue really about connection and empathy?
When parents talk about kids, communication, and screen time, the real issue is sometimes a bigger, values-based concern that centers on the idea that screens inhibit empathy and meaningful connection.
The existing research in this area is very clear that in-person expressions of empathy and connection are stronger than those that occur digitally.
It’s another argument in favor of balancing how your kids spend time with their friends and family. But let me also add this, if you’re someone who cares about connection and empathy, you’re probably already modeling those values for your kids.
We can’t change the past year, but we can use it to hit the reset button.
As life slowly starts to return to normal, it may be a good time to take stock of the things we invite back into our lives, and this is just as true for our kids.
Maybe they want to play travel soccer again, or maybe they don’t.
Maybe the friend group they had before isn’t the one they want now.
Allowing kids some say in how they adapt back into “normal life” will help them feel more comfortable with the process, which may give them the confidence they need to communicate and connect with the world around them more easily.
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Julianna W. Miner is the author of “Raising a Screen Smart Kid: Embrace the Good and Avoid the Bad in the Digital Age” and an adjunct professor of public health. Also an accomplished free lance writer and blogger, she’s the voice behind the award-winning humor blog Rants from Mommyland and a contributing author of the New York Times best-seller “I Just Want To Pee Alone.” Her work has been featured in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Parents Magazine, The Today Show, The Huffington Post, and many other places. She lives in Ohio in a very old house with three kids, two poorly behaved dogs, and one husband.