Last month, a reader suggested I spotlight how pods have turned pandemic-era socializing into middle school, with families pairing off in the presumed interest of safety, leaving some kids out in the cold.
So I put out a call for social experiences and received an avalanche of replies.
“There’s been a lot of upheaval in my mom-friend group. Pods, who’s comfortable with what, judgment and fear over who does what activity with whom,” one parent told me, anonymously. (After all, nobody wants to be ostracized even further.)
“For kids who were already great social navigators or in families that were less concerned about COVID-19, their social lives haven’t taken a beating,” lamented another mom, whose shy, introverted middle-school daughter is struggling to find her footing. “Our daughter is slowly dying inside,” she told me.
Another parent lamented that her tech-averse son had finally begun to build a solid friendship when the pandemic hit. The distance made the fledgling relationship fizzle.
“I think he’s spoken to his friend twice since March,” the parent told me.
Even parents themselves, who presumably left junior high long ago, are feeling excluded as the pandemic has caused people to retreat into comfortable bubbles. The normal rhythm of broader social interactions, from chatting at gymnastics to lingering at drop-off, has faded away — and caused some friendships to fray.
One parent, speaking anonymously, told me that her circle of local parent-friends suddenly “stopped texting” as her family was more vocal about their caution than others in the group.
“When times are hard, you know who your real friends are — people who enjoy your company for real, not for convenience,” she said.
Dealing with a pandemic is bad enough; questioning your social worth doesn’t make it any better, especially if you’re home in sweats when a neighborhood movie night shows up on Instagram and your family didn’t make the cut (an experience that seems as common as mask-buying and hand-sanitizing).
How to cope? I talked to three experts for ideas. Dr. Rachel Kramer is a clinical psychologist and parent coach in Concord. Rachel Simmons wrote “Odd Girl Out” and runs workshops to help girls develop resilience. Rosalind Wiseman wrote “Queen Bees and Wannabes,” the book that inspired “Mean Girls.” She also co-wrote “The Distance Learning Playbook for Parents.”
Here are their strategies for navigating pandemic-induced social pitfalls.
Recognize the vulnerability that solitude inspires — and the distorted thinking it causes. “We’re more vulnerable to being triggered by seeing our friends hanging out without us. In before times, you might see something like that, but the cushion of your other connections and plans offset the sting. We don’t have any cushion,” says Simmons. “It’s easy to start imagining that your relationships are changing for the worse, that people are hanging out without you.”
If your child complains of being left out, determine if it’s isolation-induced catastrophizing and emphasize his or her other connections. Also help your child think of logical reasons for the pairing: Perhaps a pod has several sets of siblings the same age, so it happened naturally.
On the other hand, be sensitive about what you share on social media. If your child has a small birthday party or an outdoor movie night, send pictures on a text chain with the guests — not for everyone to see on Instagram.
Don’t “interview for pain.” The pandemic has made kids bored, and social experimentation fills time.
“There’s more experimentation around, ‘What does it mean to be part of a group? Is the way we define ourselves as a group by leaving someone else out?’ Kids are trying to figure that out,” says Kramer. It’s developmentally normal, if hurtful.
As such, your child might be left off a text chain or a Starbucks run. Instead of probing — what Kramer calls “interviewing for pain”— simply listen and empathize.
“Then gently reflect back what you’re hearing without judgment. Kids will tell parents more if they don’t jump in to the rescue,” she says.
Wiseman urges parents to encourage “emotional granularity” instead of resorting to stock phrases like, “You’re too good for them” or “You’ll get over it.”
When your child expresses sadness, hurt, or anger, press them to define the feelings a bit more. Same goes for adults: You might feel anxious on behalf of your child or family. Why, exactly, does exclusion bother you? Why does it bother your child? What’s the ideal resolution?
“The more emotionally granular you are, the better skills you can role model for your child. Help your child break down what is happening in the friendship,” Wiseman says. Articulating their feelings is “the first step in helping your child manage their emotions and have more regulation over themselves.”
Don’t project. Wiseman sometimes encounters parents who worry about their child’s social life simply because it doesn’t look the way they expect. For example, the parents of a ninth-grade boy were concerned because he wasn’t socializing the way they anticipated. Turned out, he was playing video games in a group, and that’s where he felt most comfortable.
“The boy felt like his parents thought he was a loser because he wasn’t maintaining friendships the way they defined it. As a parent, look at it as, ‘Is my child maintaining friendships the way they define it?’” she says.
In the same vein, don’t social engineer for your excluded kid.
“This is hard for parents. You want the problem solved. It isn’t that simple. Children have a mind of their own, and human interactions are complicated,” Wiseman says. If your child is truly at a loss and you do need to get involved with another adult — say, if there’s a pattern of exclusion and hurt instead of a one-off — collaborate with your kid.
“Say, ‘I want to represent you well and accurately. Let’s write down together the most important thing I should communicate and what you don’t want me to say,” Wiseman suggests.
With an older child, ask, ‘What would have to happen for me to get involved? What are the boundaries where this would be too much [to handle] on your own?’ What kids are worried about — rightfully so — is that parents are going to increase the problem,” she says.
Depersonalize. If your child wasn’t invited to a smaller gathering, come up with benign reasons instead of leaping to negative conclusions about self-worth.
“Generate ideas as to why it’s not personal. Being left out feels yucky, but it doesn’t mean someone is a bad friend or doesn’t want to be your friend. That’s the kind of reasoning we want them to rely on as they grow,” Kramer says. “If someone makes you feel bad all the time, that’s toxic. But every one of us, especially during the pandemic, might do something hurtful or thoughtless. We need to give people chances.”
As Wiseman points out, social circles have “ossified”— think of them as frozen in time since last March. “This puts more pressure, emphasis, and inflexibility on friendships that you had before,” she says.
Don’t force something that isn’t natural. Your child might long to be part of a clique, especially one that’s perceived as elite. Simmons says that boys with who have “high athletic ability and senses of humor” tend to be sought after, whereas with girls, it’s more about status.
“You’re likely to be included if you’re friends with people who are likely to be included,” she says.
If your child comes to you feeling scarred by a one-way friendship, “Talk to your child the way you’d talk to a friend who’s in a bad relationship,” Simmons advises. “When you talk to a friend who’s in a toxic relationship, you don’t expect after one conversation that they’ll break up with the toxic person. They do it when they’re ready,” she says.
If your child is clawing at the edges of a group, Wiseman has an idea: Have them list the top three things they want in a friendship. Then ask them to describe three things that describe their current friendships. Do they match up? If not, talk it through.
“Your job as a parent is to convey your values — ‘I don’t think this is realistic; I don’t think you’re spending your effort in the right place’ — with the understanding that it’s a learning journey. They’ll realize it’s a mismatch on their own terms,” Simmons says.
If your own child is engaging in deliberately exclusive behavior, share what you observe and let them take the lead.
“Say, ‘Can you tell me more about what you were thinking?’ Let them weigh in. Then explain there are certain things that are non-negotiable in your home, and being unkind to other people is one of them. And, if they can’t do that with this group of people, you have to find some kind of alternative. Connect it to your family’s values,” Simmons says.
The bottom line: “Your child will be excluded at some point in your career as a parent. Your job is to help them grieve and to be with them in their sadness and not minimize it. It’s a legit pain for them, a legit wound. In a pandemic, it might feel even more pronounced,” says Simmons.
It’s a good lesson for parents, too. We’ll all find ourselves outside the bonfire circle at some point, and it won’t feel great.
“You might think, ‘I’m not 12 years old. Why am I feeling this? There’s no shame,’” says Wiseman. She urges parents to make overtures, even if they feel vulnerable or awkward.
“Reach out to those who seem like nice people you’d want to hang out with and say, ‘Hey. I’m feeling lonely. I’d like to connect; I’m feeling isolated,” she says. In a pandemic, “Are we really going to stand on ego with this stuff?”