Tweens vs. loneliness: How to fight isolation in the pandemic
For most adolescents, the pandemic has turned their social lives upside down.
"Since the quarantine began, my 12-year-old daughter, Penelope, hasn't had a normal playdate," says Megan Malone of Petaluma, California. After social distancing for months, Malone says, her daughter misses her friends and longs to see them in person.
While tweens often text and play online games such as Roblox and Minecraft, virtual communication can't replace the intimacy of seeing friends in real life.
"Penelope loves acting and musical theater," Malone says. "Video chats are no substitute."
"I miss giving my friends hugs," Vivienne Cornwall, 11, says. The tween is keeping in touch with her friends via Zoom and Houseparty.
"Interactions like talking to friends at sports practice and meeting pals at camp give tweens a sense of belonging," says Suniya Luthar, a psychologist and chief researcher at Authentic Connections, a nonprofit committed to fostering resilience in schools. Without those experiences, they may feel sad and lonely.
Research published in June found that lonely adolescents may be at a higher risk for mental illness, even after the pandemic ends. The researchers reviewed 63 studies that examined the effect of social isolation and loneliness on the psychological well-being of tweens.
"Our analysis found that prolonged loneliness may make adolescents more prone to anxiety or depression in the future," says Maria Loades, a clinical psychologist at the University of Bath and lead author of the paper. She says lonesome tweens may feel flawed and unlikeable, which may prevent them from reaching out to their peers.
Other studies have found that loneliness may make adolescents more susceptible to internet addiction, eating disorders and academic difficulties. Another recent study published in Personality and Individual Differences journal found that lonely tweens often grapple with irritability, anger and self-blame.
Adolescents often interpret their lonely feelings to mean that their friends don't like them, says Lele Diamond, a psychologist in San Francisco who counsels tweens. "It's hard for them to realize that having a 'bad feeling' doesn't mean they are a 'bad person,' " she says.
Studies show close friendships can help tweens weather loneliness. And researchers say adolescents with positive friendships are better at coping with adversity, disappointment and trauma later in life. For some, these bonds can be just as valuable as family support.
"As tweens loosen ties to their parents, they depend more on friends for guidance," says psychologist Lisa Damour, author of "Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls." "Friendships give kids a place to share their worries with peers who make them feel connected and accepted."
But as coronavirus cases surge, in-person school has not resumed this fall in many districts. Tweens will miss out on feel-good connections such as eating lunch with friends and talking to them after class. "In the absence of those meetings, it's vital for young people to have social support to ease loneliness and build social skills," Loades says.
Here's how parents and other caregivers can help.
• Find new social networks
As social distancing continues, some tweens may connect with peers outside of their pre-pandemic social circles because it eases their frustration. "These friends don't remind them of what they're missing," Damour says.
Reinstating relationships with neighbors or talking to friends who moved away can help tweens form new bonds. Finding creative ways to interact with loved ones can also be beneficial.
Jamie Beth Cohen's tween daughter, Nora Schindler, 11, started a singalong on Facebook Live. Cohen, who lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, says Nora loves singing and chooses different themes for each singalong, such as "Broadway songs by women singer/songwriters."
"Friends and family watch the singalong, and it's an excellent way for Nora to keep in touch and share her hobby with them," Cohen says.
During the delicate tween years, however, not every kid is eager to socialize. "Shy and anxious tweens may have a harder time reaching out because they're afraid of being rejected or ridiculed," Luthar says.
For those children, group activities that involve classmates may lessen insecurity. Parents could organize an online activity such as game night or host "caring committees" to plan safe outdoor gatherings and get-togethers for the school community. "Whatever parents choose, the goal is to foster closeness and community," Luthar says.
• Choose a new hobby
"Taking up a new hobby can be a useful way to combat loneliness," Loades says. Studies point out that hobbies can lessen stress and bolster well-being. Shared activities can also serve as social glue, which can help tweens cultivate new relationships.
New hobbies might include taking an online art class or baking with friends via FaceTime. Musically inclined tweens may enjoy writing songs or playing instruments with friends via Zoom. Some may enjoy writing short stories, poetry or create a product of their own.
"During the lockdown, Penelope developed an interest in skin care," Malone says. The tween transformed her bedroom into a spa called "The Pink Pearl."
"Penelope decorated her at-home spa with candles and wrote up a menu of services," Malone says. Before long, she started making facial masks and lotions.
"We've dropped off samples to her friends," Malone says. "It's been a fun way for Penelope to explore a new interest and do something kind for others."
• Maintain an open dialogue
Often, it's painful for parents and other caregivers to witness their tween's loneliness and suffering, especially when life feels unpredictable, unsafe and out of control. In hopes of easing distress, the adults may advise their tween to adopt a positive attitude or tell them that social distancing isn't that bad.
Such words are meant to provide comfort, but they may come across as invalidating. Damour says parents shouldn't try to fix their child's emotions, because doing so might not be possible. Instead, she suggests broaching the conversation with: "You seem upset. What's up?"
Inviting tweens to share what's on their mind conveys empathy and shows that tough conversations are OK, Damour says. In addition, open-ended questions encourage tweens to brainstorm solutions, which can be empowering and spark self-confidence. In the end, these problem-solving qualities can benefit them for years to come.