This article was originally published on page 22 in the February issue of Bay Area Parent Magazine.
As we continue to grapple with the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, our teenagers are craving social connection. Friends mean everything to teens, and many of them were not able to see their school friends in person for over a year during school closures. Teens felt this loss deeply. With the return to in-person schooling this fall, we have seen increased participation in all types of student activities from dances to study groups, athletic events and the number of students trying out for teams.
Right now it is important that we support our teens to cut down their screen time and safely become social again in person. Whether your teen is banging down their bedroom door to hang out with friends, or feeling a little nervous about it, here are some things you can do as the supportive adult in their life to help them regain their social connections:
Offer rides. Transportation is often an obstacle for teenagers to see their friends, so if you are able, offer to pick up a few of your teen’s friends and drop them off at the mall, park or wherever they choose to hang out. Support with a ride may help some younger teens connect to others with whom they go to school, but who live across town. The benefit of offering the ride is you can set the health and safety ground rules, like masking, ahead of time and also ensure that your student arrives safely. Teens love to be trusted with some independence when they are able to walk around with friends for an hour or two unaccompanied by an adult.
Encourage sports. The amazing thing about being on a team is being surrounded by a group of likeminded teens, all with friend potential. Whether your teen is a seasoned athlete or new to sports, teams offer opportunities for friendships. Practices and games are focused and structured social time where connections are made when bodies are moving. Encourage your teen to talk to the athletic director at their school about the different levels of sports participation. Most schools have non-cut sports in at least one sport season that they can join. Many school cross country, track, swimming, golf and tennis teams are non-cut and relatively easy to jump in and learn. If playing sports aren’t for your child, think about a yoga or dance class, or being a fan at a school game.
Encourage school social events. Currently, schools have comprehensive health and safety plans, and they are doing their best to offer safe social activities for their students. I have seen high schools being creative and hosting dances outside, planning community BBQs with cornhole and inflatable obstacle courses, and holiday cookie decorating, all to give their students more opportunities to connect. Stay up to date with the school’s newsletter to see what events are coming up and encourage your teen to go with a group of friends.
If the school has not been able to offer community social events for students this year, offer to help plan one or work with the parent association to organize something for students. It has been a challenging two years for school administrators, and they may welcome the volunteer support.
Host a COVID safe gathering. If you are able to, encourage your teen to invite a few friends over to your house or backyard. When you offer your home or yard, teens see that you are supportive of their social life, and there are a few benefits to hosting. In terms of safety, you can communicate and control masking, expectations for physical distancing, and how many others can attend. Also, you can be close by to feel the pulse of conversations. One trick I learned from a parent is to always pop into the gathering to offer lemonade, cookies or snacks, and while these pop-ins may look like hospitality, it is actually a way to monitor what teens are doing with their friends. Shh… Don’t tell them!
As we shift away from Zoom and go back to in-person social settings, there will be challenges, but what I see is that most teens are ready and helping each other adjust. One of my favorite moments this fall was watching a senior in high school encourage the entire freshman and sophomore class to attend a Halloween dance.
“Go to the dance,” she said. “You don’t know when things might be taken away from us again. Don’t miss out!”
She single handedly grew the dance attendance from 100 to 350 students with her enthusiasm.
If teens can encourage each other to join in-person gatherings, it is our duty as the supportive adults in their lives to stand behind them and encourage them, too.