Last week, the Belmont, MA Youth Commission invited me to present a webinar for middle school and high school students titled Coping with the Pandemic: Tools and Strategies for Teens. Part of the presentation included Q&A, and the student’s questions were so honest, thoughtful, and poignant. One question that has been on my mind came from a student who expressed worry about not knowing how to relate to people once pandemic restrictions are lifted. I have heard similar concerns from parents of younger children who worry that their children are missing the opportunity to develop social skills.
Essentially, these questions are addressing social atrophy. What is social atrophy? Social skills are like muscles: they can get weaker, or atrophy, from lack of use. In everyday interactions, people have to constantly make intuitive decisions about how to understand other’s words and body language, how to react appropriately, and how much information to share with people in their lives. These decisions are complicated, but in typical non-pandemic life children get constant practice making these judgements and often they are able to navigate social situations without a lot of thought.
During the pandemic, we are all getting much less practice with face-to-face communication. Wearing masks and staying socially distant compounds the awkward nature of current social interaction (a constant refrain from the tweens and teens I talk with is, “Everything is so awkward right now”). Having a varied social diet, and interacting with different people in different ways, from friends, to teachers, to the school bus driver or the person working in the school cafeteria, gives students a sense of belonging to a broad community. Social isolation decreases this network and can lead to feelings of loneliness, sadness, irritability, and exhaustion.
What can parents do to support their children’s social skills and combat social atrophy?
Support development of self-awareness: by helping children identify and label their emotions:
“Sounds like you are really disappointed that we can’t get together with our friends since it’s so cold outside today.”
“Ugh, I hear what you’re saying. It’s more challenging to talk to friends when everyone is wearing a mask. I find that frustrating too.”
When people are out of practice interacting with others, it’s easy to get caught up in one’s own world and to overfocus on oneself to the exclusion of interest in others. I have heard many stories, particularly from tweens and teens, about unsatisfying conversation with friends who only talked about themselves rather than asking questions. Parents can support communication skills by providing specific tools to help children flex their social skills muscles.
Encourage children to think about 1 or 2 general questions to ask a peer as they go about their day. Brainstorm ideas on the weekend or on the ride/walk to school, such as, “Did you watch the Superbowl?” “What’s your favorite flavor of ice cream?”
Suggest that children hold in mind a brief, amusing story about a general topic that you can share with others – perhaps a funny story about a pet or about something that happened on the weekend.
Promote empathy. Whether you are talking about something that happened during the day or watching a movie or show together, look for opportunities to talk about other people’s feelings.
As a family, encourage a commitment to kindness, which might look like processing events, stories, or media by asking, “Was that a kind thing to do?” or “What would have been the kind thing to do in that situation?” or by bringing attention to small, kind acts committed by family members, “Thanks for grabbing my slippers when I said my feet were cold, that was kind of you.”
Another place you might see signs of social atrophy is that children are at risk for misinterpreting or overreacting to peer’s words and/or behavior. To counteract this risk, when children share stories about difficult social interactions, encourage them to look for the facts and assume positive intent from others unless they have factual evidence to the contrary. For example: “Hmm, you think your friend is mad at you. How did you draw that conclusion? What was the evidence? Are there other ways to understand what happened?”
Keep in mind that children are resilient, and once they have access to more consistent in person social interaction most children will quickly strengthen and re-build their social muscles.