Supporting meaningful connections online

Friendships – accessing, building, sustaining meaningful connection in lockdown. What parents can do to support their children and teens…

The Coronavirus lockdown is teaching us several things about the value of connection. We have known for many years, how fundamental connection is for our psychological wellbeing – and for that of our children. We have evolved as profoundly social creatures…having to work together for our survival and nourishment. We are born more vulnerable and needy of support from our caregivers- thanks in part to our huge brains which mean we are not engineered for mobility and independence. We don’t need legions of friends (well many socially wired 9-14 year olds feel they do)- but we do need a small handful of people we feel close to and can count on.
Right now we are in a landmark period of challenge – and I anticipate we will learn a lot in terms of mental health and child development. In World War 2, the mass evacuation of children from their urban homes and families sharpened what we now know about attachment theory and the value of the relationship between the child and their parent / primary carer. Child Development Research has focused on this hugely – because in research terms, it is easier than tracing friendship dynamics – and this may well have contributed to a great deal of parental guilt over recent decades. This experience is shining a light on the part played by peers in the flourishing of our children. With the suspension of school and peer group life, we will learn more about the value of friendships and how peer-group-play contributes to the lives of children and teens in their development. 
Last week I wrote about loneliness – and how the quality of our relationships is predictive of our psychological health & wellbeing, also our physical health and longevity. But loneliness is not just about being alone or being separated -as we all are physically. It is also about the perception of loneliness. And of course, you can be lonely in a marriage, in a family. You can be surrounded by people, by ‘friends’ and feel profoundly alone. 
This week I’m thinking about friendships, the pursuit of connection in these restrictive times, what we are learning, and how parents & teachers, can help…How we might be able to capitalise on the separations and distancing of the lockdown to help our kids and teens think about the quality of their connections, and be on their own side when the going gets tough. 
Much of what follows is probably more clearly focused on the home-life situation. However, I also know that many of you teachers reading are deeply invested in pastoral care and are often supporting children and parents when difficulties with friendships emerge and can get quite stuck…so from that point of view, you might like to read on…Or consider in the light of your own sense of connection /disconnection.

A word about friendships in the context of child development:
During the homogenisation period of adolescence, our glorious, principled kids are pushed by the urgent drive to find their tribe. And with that can comes compromise of principles, putting up with the status quo in order to belong. In the early stage of adolescence – roughly from 11-14/15, young people can become very status-driven in this biological drive to fit in. 
Popularity – particularly at this stage- is often more associated with social dominance than ‘likeability’ – as quite a depth and range of research in the US has shown (Read Prof Mitch Prinstein’s study – Popular). In fact of those who are identified as being most popular in peer group studies are also shown to frequently not display likeable qualities. In fact only the intersection between popular and likeable teens is only 30%. And unfortunately, as it breaks my feminist sisterly heart to say it – within that 30% fewer are girls than boys. 
So it’s quite a good benchmark to use when discussing popularity, belonging – and friendship traits…is their behaviour, their way of being status driven, or is it popular. If your child is status driven or within a status-driven group, they’re in for a bumpy ride – especially thinking about returning after the Crisis-Schooling break…So as a parent, as a teacher, focus on likeable -and elevating the notion of what it means to be likeable in our discourse on belonging and friendship.

I’m really missing my friends…
With distance comes longing. And that needs to be validated rather than minimised (downplayed) or silver-lined. So once you’ve helped your child/teen establish where they are at with their feelings about missing their friends, use your parent / pastoral superpower to ask what are the things about that friend that they miss so much. It’s all about the values! Sinek says start with the WHY…and this is a valuable reflection to come back to again and again and again. The value of the why is especially important in the teenage years.
What makes this friendship rock? Get them thinking about values and principles underpinning healthy and flourishing relationships – so that they will be able to articulate what they like, want, need. Both now – and in the future…This metacognition – the thinking around their feelings of friendship will help them health-assess their relationships. 
What qualities do they and their friend bring to the friendship? What are those qualities so important? What do those look like? How does it feel when those values are being lived in a friendship…What part do they think those values and qualities should play in all relationships? What happens in relationships where those are not in place – or start to change? 
This is all brilliant work in stoking up our children’s sense of value, principle, to know what their true North is, where friendships work. To cap it all off, you could encourage your child to do something with all that beautiful thinking – to write a card, a letter, draw a picture, write and record a song….and send something celebrating their gratitude for the friendship they share. Deeply healing and connecting.

Meaningful connection – screen or no-screen…
What is this looking like with your child or teen? It’s tricky really – because the lockdown is really putting an emphasis on quite intense communication. Last week HBR ran an article on Zoom fatigue- that the level of intensity of Zoom conversations is exhausting. After all we don’t have conversations within about 3 feet of each other in a close head-to-head gaze…Ready for your close-up anyone? Also, the extra stimuli we have on-screen – trying to converse whilst also watching ourselves in action is also a distraction – and it’s hard enough to be present for each other at the best of times! There’s also the temptation to multi-task… this fragmentation means we are constantly playing catch up and our brains are working hard…So always consider alternatives. Go old-school – dare I say it – use the phone as a phone for a conversation?! Write letters, send cards, print out old photos and write a message of reminiscence. Build a trove of friendship treasures. 
It’s quite rare that young children – and even young teens are able to sustain conversation – it’s an art that we learn over time. Interactions between kids are often very funny and profound – but they are in the context of rich play, touch, movement, gesture, games, shared jokes which can be physical as much as verbal. So it’s quite a hit-and-miss affair to have a go at a Zoom call or a WhatsApp call for younger kids…they want to move…(Now watch your ipad going for a house tour…). These miss-steps in the dance of what is normally a fluent, lovely perky friendship can be really disconcerting and dissatisfying. Some kids whose screen-time is strictly managed can’t help but start to try and multi-task, playing on the ipad rather than really immersing themselves in the call…again it’s a dissatisfying experience for both parties. 
So how to support meaningful connection? It’s always good practice to be around and able to tune in – albeit at a distance – to the social calls…Maybe not to listen in to every word – but to be nearby so that we can overhear the ‘music’ of the call and check out if there’s a change of rhythm and tone we don’t like the sound of…At that point, we might want to get to know what the ‘lyrics’ are and check that they are OK…It’s a great idea to have a bit of a debrief – checking in with how your child felt about the call – what the impact on them is – creating openness so that they can come to you with the good, the bad, and the ugly. Always start with what sounded good, what was going well and ask open questions…Link with values, and evaluative questions – what was important to them about this opportunity to catch up? What’s so valuable about the connection they shared there? What can fun look like when you’re restricted to being online like this? Then give your observation about what sounded different (perhaps to you, sounding a little off-key) – and just be curious…’It sounded like you got a bit frustrated later on – I thought you were going to end the call – what was going on for you?’
In other words, use the time around the calls to help your child reflect on what is working well, and helping interactions really gel, and what is making them less comfortable, and ask them about strategies to get more of what they want next time, and less of what they don’t want…If something has hit a duff note – either in what they have said – or what they have received from their friend, then it’s important to help them reframe the encounter, and think about how to engage hope and agency around making a repair in a lower-stakes shorter interaction next time. So that they don’t become avoidant around the ‘conflict’ or perceived conflict, and ruminate over it. 
How can we help model good practice in the art of conversation and togetherness in this slightly artificial space? It is, after all a VIRTUAL connection. We can ask our kids to think about great questions to ask – how to open up the stories of life in lockdown as their friends are experiencing it- how to listen and be curious in asking questions to deepen understanding, take opportunity to make connections and be expansive. 
We can enable our kids to appreciate what good listening is like – the impact it has on us – and how they can give the gift of their attention to their friends. How does it feel when we are really listened to? What is the impact? How does it feel when they are not listened to? What is important about that? What are they learning when they do or don’t feel listened to?
Can they also have a little stock of topics and questions they want to raise with their friend to sustain the interest in the conversation, to add enchantment, laughter…? Are there some little games that they can play or interests and projects that they can share to provide some continuity and add interest when they check in with each other?
How can they make sure they are in an open and receptive mode before they start their Zoom call? What’s the difference if they’ve had a little more space in between finishing on-line lessons and starting an on-line social life? It’s all about thinking about the QUALITY of the interaction – what works for them, what works for their friend…
We know when things feel good in our relationships – we enjoy it in the moment – but often we don’t savour those feelings and unpack them so that we can be articulate about what we are looking for. When things feel bad, we know what that feels like too – but often it’s hard to put our finger on just what it is…and quite often we don’t like to think about what is going wrong in high-stakes relationships that really matter. 
We can put our head in the sand, which means for our teens, their hurt suppressed, their friends are not mind readers, patterns deepen, as does the hurt and the negative scripts around a situation where they feel powerless. This is stressful in any relationship – it means our children are having to do a lot of emotional labour for the status quo of the relationship to stay intact. In doing so, they compromise their happiness. This is very common in early adolescence (10-14/15) when the drive to find belonging with peers is such a dominant force. 
We want our kids to be able to be on their own side in their relationships and be articulate, assertive as well as compassionate, tolerant and empathetic. Enabling them to name ‘it’ – the feelings, the impact, why it matters, is the gateway to them being able to ‘tame’ toxic situations – to call them out in relation to their core friendship values – without heaping shame or blame and taking an uncomfortable situation to defcon 1. 
Relationships are built on interactions. If the interactions are of high quality, then the relationship will be so too. So if we want to help our kids now during the restrictions on our interactions -and future-proof them for when they emerge from these restrictions, we can use some of the time when our lives are held together more closely to focus on quality and values, listening skills, appreciation and savouring the good, and have a secure ‘true north’ set of principles about how they want and need to be treated by others for them to speak to their needs and values in their close relationships – and get those needs met.

Gaming contact 
Of course, if you are happy with the game, security and boundaries around safeguarding with playing with friends online, then playing a game can add structure and reduce the pressure on the interactions – but to prevent power struggles, you need to have really clear time limits, so that beginnings and endings are well managed between you – management with no surprises. 
One key rule I always advocate in my ‘Digital Parenting’ talks – extra playing privileges, extensions, new purchases etc are all dependent on being able to respond to reasonable and agreed limit-setting with cooperation and civility. When we start to see our kids prioritise their time gaming online over harmony at home, then that’s when we need to go back to the discipline of self-regulation around device use. To be able to pick it up and have joyful times – but be ready to put it down again when the agreed time has come and lead a full and balanced life of varied play and recreational experiences. 
What you need to be the good judge of is the impact these games and the rivalry of playing online games competitively is having on your child. Is it revving them up into aggression or draining them into disaffection if they aren’t ‘hooked up’? Do they bound away from that interaction feeling better for it? Or slightly queasy and headachey…Are they able to go to sleep at night without replays intruding? Sometimes the language around the gaming scene can be a bit ripe – and indeed a bit much – macho talk, and the victor shaming the ‘beaten’ opponent…it can go too far. Again, time for some limit setting – both helping your child be on their own side and stand up when something’s going on that makes them feel bad – or makes them feel uncomfortable for other people in the group. 
Are the interactions around the game meaningful? Is the dynamic around the game broadening and building the friendship – or is it too minimal or too fraught. Again, the watch-words are quality and impact.

The same goes for interactions over apps like Tiktok – which in fun, in proportion, at the right time, is really entertaining – but can be quite rivalrous – genuinely, likeable amusing, or grandstanding and status-driven…Watch, observe impact, ask powerful questions and spark some deeper thinking…

There is so much I want to write about relationships for teens and children at this time – and I am mindful of the length of this piece. At the moment I am doing a lot of talks for parents about family life in lock-down and I know that the social impact of lockdown is a big concern for parents and teachers alike. 
Let me know, what else would you like some input on when considering the issue of your children’s friendships, making their connections meaningful. Next week, I want to look at how we can prepare our kiddoes for emerging out of restriction and back into school and group life…
Last week’s newsletter on loneliness in social isolation clearly struck many chords. Thanks so much to those of you who took the time to write in. It really makes a difference.
If you feel that your school could do with some training around these issues – either for pupils, for teachers, for parents, please pass this on or get in touch. If you feel your family could gain by some close input via coaching, drop me a line and we can have a conversation about what you want to achieve and how we might work together.
With much love and gratitude -as always.

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