Friendships play a huge role in child development. But what role is the pandemic playing in child friendships?

·4 min read
Friendships are being tested even for kids who are going to school during the pandemic. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Friendships are being tested even for kids who are going to school during the pandemic. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

This story is part of Amy Bell's Parental Guidance column, which airs on CBC Radio One's The Early Edition.

I can still remember some of the times I spent with my childhood friends with incredible clarity — and sometimes with incredible embarrassment.

In fact, I'm still close to a small group of those people and they have shaped me and my experiences as I've grown up.

But just as I've struggled to stay close to people when it's limited to texts or furtive beers in a park while we remained two metres apart, the isolation and lack of hangtime has been a big struggle for the younger generations.

And for kids who have remained out of their classrooms this past year, that lack of social interaction has been incredibly difficult, with many parents noticing an increase in sadness, anger and anxiety in their children.

Some parents have chosen to bend the rules in order to let their children see friends. But many others have only let their children socialize within the confines of school, leading to frustration and resentment.

While Lucy Maloney's two children, aged 9 and 11, attend school, they are really missing friends who are in different cohorts or learning from home. There's no chance to switch it up when it comes to who they play with, which can be hard if issues of bullying come up or if they find themselves wanting to branch out to different people with different ideas of things to do and games to play.

"Any friends you had at the start of the pandemic, you're kind of stuck with," Maloney says. "That just kind of cuts out the normal ways we'd foster new friendships for our kids."

And while many families have found online activities to be a way to connect, that meant some younger kids had an early crash course in how hard playdates can be when they are played out on a screen.

Maloney's youngest was the only member of her friend group that wasn't using a messenger app, so they allowed her to sign up so she wouldn't be left out — but that's led to new problems, she says.

"Some might be on a private call, others might be excluded. It's a social thing, so is it better than them just playing video games by themselves?" wonders Maloney.

"It's all these issues that we could have probably avoided for a few more years if it hadn't been for the timing of the pandemic."

Friendships also don't come easily for a lot of people of all ages, even at the best of times, and the friends they have are incredibly important.

Alison Gadsby's 17-year-old son Duncan Rutherford has Sturge-Weber syndrome, which means he has some developmental differences. While he has always loved school and misses being surrounded by his peers, close buddies can be hard to find.

"The challenges of being part of a larger peer group have been present from day one," says Gadsby.

Duncan is incredibly close and connected to a very small group of friends who are on the autism spectrum. They all naturally bond and provide a safe place for each other in ways that many other people cannot understand, Gadsby says.

"They welcome each other to talk openly, without ridicule … They really care about what the others care about. "

While Duncan and his friends have managed to stay close with daily phone calls, some connections will undoubtedly be lost to the pandemic. And when life returns, those bonds may not.

I worry that we adults sometimes forget or underestimate how important friendship is for our kids; how these relationships are some of the greatest loves of their lives outside of family, and play an incredible role in who they eventually become. Friends can be the keeper of secrets and your biggest cheerleaders.

No matter what I try, I can't match that in my children's lives — and I wouldn't want to. Kids need relationships independent of their parents to truly discover who they are meant to be.

Sadly, many of these young friendships have been changed and, at times, taken away by the pandemic. But while all these friendships may not last forever, the impact of them will. I just hope that outweighs the impact this past year has had on them.