How to Help Your Teen Maintain Friendships While Social Distancing

Social Connection Fuels Us

Social distancing is taking its toll on all of us. Being apart from friends and loved ones is challenging. Human beings are social creatures. We survive and thrive together. Social connection improves our physical health as well as our mental and emotional well-being. It can even help us fight off illnesses and live longer! Being under quarantine has proven just how much we yearn for togetherness. From virtual happy hours with colleagues, to online workout communities, to drive-by birthday parties — people across the globe are proving it’s possible to stay socially close while being physically distant. Finding meaningful ways to connect may be more important than ever for teens. 

Relationships are Crucial for Teens

I asked a handful of young people across the country how being separated from friends makes them feel. A few of their responses included, “Isolated,” “Upset,” “Lonely”, “Dismayed,” and “Angry.” They have a right to feel this way. Adolescents have a developmental need for connection. Pediatrician and CPTC’s Founding Director Dr. Ginsburg says, “The emotional centers of the brain are developing rapidly. This leads to heightened emotions, including the ability to connect with others and read how people are feeling. The brain’s reward centers are wired to activate around peers. Adolescence is about preparing to launch from the family nest and to enter the adult world of work and relationships. The brain is designed to promote those relationships. Peer relationships are the prep work needed to have fulfilling and satisfying adult relationships later.” This helps explain why being separated from peers is so devastating for adolescents. And, it reinforces the need to find ways to support their ability to remain close to friends even while social distancing. 

“During this time of social distancing, I have realized how much of an impact my friends have in my life and how grateful I am for them.”

Seven Ways to Maintain Friendships

Here are several ways to support your teens to connect with friends during the coronavirus health pandemic. Share these ideas with your teens, suggest that they come up with their own,  and encourage them to try at least one new thing this week.

  1. Celebrate Good Times. Homemade gifts are not just for small children. Teens are also tapping into their creative side. Several of fifteen year old Raquel’s friends turned 16 while under quarantine and they have found meaningful ways to celebrate: “I have sent letters and gifts for them and additionally made slideshows of photos that we can look back on for fun.” Check out these DIY projects for teens for easy ideas to create your own gifts.
  2. Exercise Together. With gyms closed many fitness instructors have taken to Youtube or other online venues. For a list of free fitness classes, read this article. I took advantage of Peloton’s 90-day free trial offer. Share your username with friends and agree to take the same exercise class at the same time. It’s motivating to see names and faces you recognize listed alongside yours and can lead to some healthy competition.  
  3. Have a Watch (or Read) Party. Netflix Party allows you to watch shows or movies together online. Popular artists are also offering concerts from their homes. Agree to watch the same thing at the same time and discuss your thoughts during live chats or afterwards. Or, consider swapping a book for the screen. Read the same magazine article or book, then chat about your favorite parts. Many authors place discussion questions at the end of the book to fuel conversation. 
  4. Host a Virtual Game Night. Use a video chat platform like Google Hangout, Zoom, or Houseparty to play games such as chess, charades, or “Heads Up”. Take turns designing a round of trivia each week. Video games like Fortnite also offer opportunities to play against friends online. (Take a look at Common Sense Media’s Ultimate Guide to Fortnite for everything you need to know about this popular game.) 
  5. Be Artistic. Some pretty impressive art has been inspired by and created during this health crisis, including the trend to recreate famous paintings. For the musicians out there, consider writing a song with friends over video chat. Budding artists can create a portrait of a friend, or act as a muse posing for one. Organize and get friends to contribute to an online poetry slam. Have a cooking contest and invite friends to judge the final “presentation.” Compile photos or videos into a slideshow or video message. Art can be explored in many forms and is a great stress reliever.   
  6. Show Off Your Pet. Studies reveal there are several health benefits to having a furry friend, including better fitness, lower stress, and greater happiness. Pets are even making spontaneous appearances on video calls giving classmates and co-workers a good laugh. Your teen can join in on the fun by having a pet fashion show or showing off their training know-how with a skills competition. 
  7. Reach Out. Daily check-ins can help lift spirits. Share a GIF or Meme through text, make a TikTok video, give a thumbs up on social media, or set up a video chat with someone you haven’t spoken to in a while. As 21-year-old Jessica points out, “We can all use a few extra friends today and even a small simple text can make the world of difference.”

We are lucky to live in a time where technology allows so many of us to remain in touch. Yet, many teens still miss the in-person time. Raquel shares that “FaceTime is not the same and it is not anywhere like hanging out with someone in person so that makes me feel upset and mad.” So, even as we encourage teens to connect with friends, remember they may still feel disappointed and that’s okay. Acknowledge these very real emotions. Show empathy for just how hard this situation is. Help them process their feelings in healthy ways — by journaling, exercising, or finding a creative outlet, for example. We can hope that at the end of this all, teens will come to recognize the power of relationships in the same way Jessica has: “During this time of social distancing, I have realized how much of an impact my friends have in my life and how grateful I am for them.” 

About Elyse Salek

Elyse Salek, M.S.Ed. is an Administrative Director of Research at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Her degrees are in Psychology and Human Development from Middlebury College and the University of Pennsylvania School of Education. She is the proud mother of two children.

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