Interruptions to connections during the pandemic

Connection interrupted! Pandemic problems in friendship groups  in tweens & teens…and how we can show up and support.

AS we head towards half term, schools have come back together, and somehow managed to stay together, thanks to careful planning and pandemic protocols. Young people have resumed their studies and their social lives…The initial euphoria of reconnecting for some – as well as the initial dread and disappointment of the return for others…has now subsided and is changing to something new. 

In my coaching work, I have been supporting parents and young people around the roller-coaster of friendships as the whole dynamic changes and develops with cognitive advances in the brain 8+, the extra complexity that comes with it -as well as the dawning of self-consciousness, and a more politicised social scene.

This is what I’m going to draw on today.

In year 4/5 plus, as our children grow through the school system, their friendship dynamics change, to an extent. And there are slight differences in the patters we see in different genders. 

But broadly speaking at 8+ when the brain is capable of far more nuance in cognitive understanding and complexity, friendships and the social scene start to have more weight and meaning. This means there is the potential for a lot more joy, variety, depth…but also pain. A child of 6 can be told they are the worst person-in-the-world and I-hate-you WITHOUT their world falling apart. I am not saying young children are immune from sensitivity, but they tend to be able to move on more quickly. 

If older children fall out, they know how to make each other suffer with just the right twist of the knife. Their insults will stick deeper, resonate stronger, and the extra dose of self-awareness / self-consciousness opens the door to more anxiety, worry, and introspection where friendship issues are at stake. 

Previously, children TEND to be able to move from friendship group to friendship group without too much fear of reprisal, they tend to be less inhibited in their reactions to each other, so they can say when they don’t like something, and move on more freely. 

At 8+ friendships start to have greater depth, more inner reflections that have more significance are shared, they are able to have more autonomy and therefore engagement in what’s happening in the friendship.

Our children choose their own friends, rather than the ones selected by us, based on our own affiliations with like-minded parents…Ie – who is in our WhatsApp contacts, who we like to crack open the Chardonnay with or go on holiday with…

It can be very frustrating to see our children move away from a familiar friendship that seemed to us to work, and steer towards more choppy waters with more tricky characters…and it’s hard to let that important choice be… Yet it is an important human right…enshrined in the UNICEF rights of the child…

10 things for Teachers and Parents to bear in mind about relationships from 8 – 16 in the current climate…

  1. As both boys and girls steer towards puberty, the drive to find belonging with peers their own age strengthens. They become increasingly reliant on feeling belonging with peers, and the primary drive for belonging at home which belongs to infancy starts to recede. This is natural. 

    1. At the same time the drive to belong with peers is taking hold, there are corresponding reawakenings and re-workings of something akin to sibling rivalry with peers. This is accelerated by the process of transferring to secondary school. Anxiety about the ending of primary school and the start of secondary school throw up new challenges to group dynamics…Who is going to the same or different schools and why? The age of comparison dawns…which is the ‘better’ school, who is ‘cleverer’…who is – and who isn’t doing scholarships…The way in which parents navigate the choices of secondary schools and create narratives about secondary schools will either accelerate or alleviate the natural anxiety concerning change and uncertainty. 

      1. The central preoccupation of adolescence is ‘who am I?’. The sense of self is being changed and renegotiated. Different sides of the personality may be tried on for size…being the ‘good boy’ or ‘good girl’ may give way to wanting to try out more edgy versions of the self. The uniform worn with such pride at the start of Year 7 will be transformed in Year 8 / 9…the shirt will become untucked, the trousers lower slung…for many girls the socks will go down, the skirt will go up. 

        1. It’s a time of massive change. In the brain and the body, early adolescence is when there is almost more growth and change than at any other time outside the womb. By 11 the brain will be fuller of grey and white matter than at any other time in their lives. The wiring will be there – but for what? The process of adolescence will be literally to shed 50% of that substance, to wire in and myelinate super-fast connections between neutrons, based on the repeated experiences our kids have between the age of 11 and 24. During this time, every part of the the brain we know about is rewiring, and hyper attuned to threat from peer-group dynamics especially…so emotional volatility, and difficulty regulating emotions is a keynote.

          1. In relational terms, it’s an uncertain time. They are differentiating from their parents, flexing their muscles with authority, trialling out different elements of their personality, making friendships and joining groups with others who are equally fast changing and emotionally…it can be like walking on egg-shells.

            1. In the urgent haste to consolidate that sense of belonging in a group, adolescents between the ages of 11-14 approximately, can become very stubs driven. This means seeking social power and influence. Being visible, being cool. It can mean certain elements of rivalrous behaviour are enacted with peers- overly competitive, aggressive, making others feel lower. With boys, status and control are often exerted though humour and ‘jokes’…which reinforce hierarchy And are designed to control. Similar controlling behaviour is within female groups but often quite subtle and hard to pinpoint – via little micro-aggressions…This can also look like belittling others, eroding, using social aggression to invite disapproval and shame on a targeted peer in order to consolidate their position. The cult of popularity is replicated in social media…where society gives mixed messages about what is popular. This type of popularity has its downsides, as the group connections are more dopamine-driven than nurturing stronger bonds and providing the benefits of serotonin and oxytocin. 

              1. This means that behaviour which deliberately ‘others’ abounds… ‘Othering’ those who are seen as threats, or who present convenient canvas to project unprocessed difficult feelings. Don’t be too surprised by some pretty brutal behaviour. See the ‘How to show up’ sequel advice below…

                1. AS our children have come back into group-life after lockdown, they have returned with different experiences, different rates and types of growth and development. Some had high expectations of picking up exactly where they left off with their close friends – only to find that inexplicably things have moved on…Some of our kids went on lockdown as children and have emerged as adolescents…Some of the kids we teach have come back to school life marked by bereavement, scarred by near-brushes with serious illness in the family, family conflict, divorce, separation, unemployment, housing insecurity…These experiences can cause disconnection with peers who all seem to still have ‘perfect lives’.

                  1. Boys’ friendships tend to have a 3rd dimension – an activity, music, art, sport, gaming – and this is a really dynamic element of their friendship which makes it slightly less psychologically intense in early adolescence – and through life…Girls’ relationships may be forged over common ground – again, a love of reading certain types of book, sports, music, etc…but this third element can be less dynamic. The currency of the friendship is more about sharing thoughts and feelings. Some psychologists describe male friendships as being more ‘side by side’ – competition and rivalry around common interests, but girls’ friendships as more ‘head to head’…

                    1. Normally there are arcs of change and development in friendship dynamics…between Year 5 and 6 as the build up to the transition to secondary school and the accompanying exams and milestones pass…in Year 7, the girls in particular will bond and form close ‘best’ friendships and linger on that stage, whereas boys tend to touch in and out of the ‘best friendships stage more lightly. Come the end of Year 7 and certainly into Year 8 the honeymoon bonding at the start of secondary school starts to show signs of wear and tear, and the plate tectonics of friendship groups shift and change. OF course, this can be a gentle pulling apart, sad nonetheless, but gentle…or a more savage experience. THIS year, however, for many reasons, this process has been interrupted by the extended periods of home schooling – so we are starting to see a lot more choppy water all at once. It takes young people by surprise, and can be very traumatic.

This is why it matters so much that the adults in their lives are ready to help growth around these experiences of change, uncertainty, sadness, pain, and loss…To prevent our young people suffering in silence, and to enable them to work through their difficulties and empower them to advocate for themselves. 

10 ways adults can help the growing pains where friendship is concerned.

  1. Listen and let them speak. Help them express their emotions rather than suppress them. Shed the tear, talk to someone, write about it. All will help declutter the mind…

    1. Dial down your own sense of adult disapproval and judgment. IT DOES NOT HELP to layer on our emotion – even our strong feelings of righteous anger on their behalf…It’s not about us…it’s about them. Newsflash, kids have always had the capacity for cruelty. Think about Lord of the Flies, Mean Girls, Cinderella and the ugly sisters, Estella and Pip in Great Expectations…Just because our kids are having a hard time right now now does not mean they are destined to have sand kicked in their faces forever…in fact the way WE SHOW UP around these moments, will define our relationship with our growing child – whether we will continue to be a resource for them or not…and whether they will learn and grow from these experiences, or shrink, or develop dysfunctional coping strategies like appeasement, avoidance, or lashing out and fighting fire with fire, and never really learning how to navigate the difficulties in relationships that matter. In fact, BRING IT ON…this is when we, as adults in the lives of kids, can show our worth, and empower them to make increasingly better choices. Every bump in the road, or twist of the rollercoaster has the chance to help them learn and inoculate themselves from abusive or controlling tendencies in the future…

      1. Hold off from diagnosing or decreeing that ‘this is bullying’ ‘they are bullies’. They may be…but don’t be too quick to attach labels. AND remember…what the flip side to this sort of statement is…it is saying ‘you are a victim’…IS it going to be helpful or empowering to introduce these polarities? At what juncture? Remember, young people need to borrow our pre-frontal cortex. Their brains are less agile in self-regulating and they are already swinging from catastrophisation to joyful belonging…Be the guide by the side…not the crusader… 

        1. Be patient -ask them to explore and be able to name what their feelings are in response to what happened. Don’t put words in their mouth or assume you know. 

          1. You may have had a similar experience in the past…Be aware of that…but again, remember this is THEIR moment of pain and loss – it can be disconnecting and prevent the young person from feeling heard by bringing up your own experiences – even if this is with the best of intentions. Do this selectively and only after you’ve done the work with helping them fully get out how they feel.

            1. Don’t silver-line the experience. ‘Hey, you’re better off without them…a year from now, you won’t remember this…’
Remember the object of emotion is completion. Trying to minimise, dial down, suppress, put the lid on difficult feelings, means we carry them around with us, they stay with us and infect how we show up in future relationships. What we feel, we push out into the world. SO scaffold and help them work through the pain and confusion. 

              1. DO ask them what is so important to them about what happened. Ask them to think about and talk about what the impact on them is. This starts to move into identifying their values – what relationship values they have seen be put in breach. It also starts to enable them to reflect on what their rights are in their friendships.

                1. As they talk about the values, the things that matter to them, use that as a launchpad to briefly describe and reflect back to them their strengths… ‘Wow, yes. I think what you’ve just said there is really profound. You have a really strong sense of justice. A sense of equality is so important. What might that look/ feel like – when you are treated with equality…’

                  1. Ask them what they are learning from the experience…get them to reflect and formulate their own take-aways. What did they OBSERVE, what did they HEAR, what did they FEEL, what do they THINK about it…now that the ‘sturm and drang’ of the feelings have been explored, they are more likely to be ready to reflect. 

                    1. Ask them what they WANT, what their CHOICES are…this starts to invite their sense of agency. What will they DO about it…what might be their first step, and next? Listen to them and encourage their problem solving. You can always get them to double check their thinking if their steps seem too avoidant or too unrealistic… ‘OK, what might that look like? What are the main upsides? What down-sides do you see?’ 

                      1. Remember that healthy relationships are the number 1 protective factor in our mental health. Friends with peers, relationships with family, trusted adults…make sure you are showing up in a way that preserves connection In your own relationship with the young person. Praise their resourcefulness in coming to you with their problem and their feelings.

                        1. Be clear and transparent about how you are going to protect their sense of trust and confidentiality. Don’t crusade in and tell them you’re going to email their form teacher/ Head teacher, head of year…If you are their teacher, ask them what else they would like you to do. IF you are fairly confident they have ‘got this’, that’s a powerful message to give a young person. BUT you will want to check in with them later to see how they got on with their plan…As a teacher, in your Owen mind, you want a sense of a time frame for when the situation might go to ‘defcon 1’ and be escalated to parents / pastoral leaders etc. Ask them who else is out there who they can trust and turn to. Who else can they confide in and get good advice. This reminds them of their other network of external resources. 

I hope this helps – whether you’re a teacher supporting groups of young people through these ordinarily difficult challenges of learning boundaries through the experiences of growing pains in relationships…or whether you are a parent bearing witness you your son or daughter in the trenches of the politics of school, friendship and group-life. These experiences resonate. And it is important that we do our own internal work and look what is coming up for us as we come alongside them and make sure we are not infecting ‘their stuff’ with ‘our stuff’. This means we are more able to be strategic with our questions. To hold the space for their feelings. To give them the space to step up and into their own power so that THEY are going to be able to speak truth to power in the moment of the micro-aggression, the joke that goes beyond a joke etc. It is not an easy task. If you’d like some coaching to look in more depth at your own practice as a parent or a teacher get in touch…or some training for your pastoral team, let me know. Maybe you are part of a corporate parent group – feel free to recommend. If you’d like some support for the kids in your school, I can deliver workshops via webinar or in-person speaker events. Working through conflict in relationships, learning how to health -check your friendships and deal with toxic groups is a major area of my work.In these anxious times, relationships can suffer. And indeed are suffering. IT is so important that we ALL learn to speak to our needs, and get our needs met, and stand up for meaningful connection: relationships that are appreciative, inclusive, attentive to the dignity of all. Get in touch via my website. Feel free to recommend my work. And encourage friends who might be interested to sign up for more via my newsletter. With love and gratitude,Emma 

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