Keeping Friendships Strong During the Pandemic Is Good for Kids–and Adults

Colorful graphic of cell phones framing people with their arms around eachother.
Author  Wellesley College
Published on 

In 2011, the United Nations designated July 30 as the International Day of Friendship, recognizing in its resolution “the relevance and importance of friendship as a noble and valuable sentiment in the lives of human beings around the world…” As we all adapt to social distancing, limiting time spent with others, and working from home in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, finding ways to maintain friendships can help counter the isolation such restrictions can induce—especially for children.

Tracy Gleason, professor of psychology at Wellesley, studies how young children understand their relationships with other people and with imaginary companions. At a time when friends can’t get together in person, she stresses the importance of maintaining friendships and offers advice on how to do that from a distance.

How would you describe the significance of friendship for children?

Tracy Gleason: It’s difficult to overemphasize the significance of friendship, particularly in childhood. Friends are the first relationships that children choose. The fact that friendships are open and voluntary—they could end at any time—makes them significantly different from relationships with family members.

For example, conflict with your sibling does not have to get resolved for the relationship to continue, but conflict with a friend does. Consequently, friendships are contexts in which children learn skills that are critical for getting along with others, like negotiation, compromise, and conflict resolution. In contrast to most other relationships, friendships are also what we call "horizontal" (as opposed to "vertical"), meaning that the dynamic is largely egalitarian. So again, that means a friendship is a context in which children get to try out directing play or sharing, where they sometimes get to be the one with knowledge that the other person doesn't have.

Friendship also affords other important experiences, like having your ideas rejected, cooperating with someone else, or having a partner in crime when you're being mischievous (although, to be fair, siblings are good for that, too). Especially in early childhood, adults help quite a bit with emotion regulation, so when children are with their friends, they have to practice regulating themselves, whether that means managing negative or positive emotions. Friends give you all of these opportunities.

What's the importance of imaginary friends for young kids at a time without school or playdates?

Gleason: Hard to know, since no research has ever been done on imaginary companions (ICs) in a time without school or playdates. However, we do know that ICs are often associated with home (they rarely attend school, or if they do, they often go to a different school than the child), and peers are typically absent when they appear. I'm speculating, but these findings suggest that ICs might be in their heyday right now. Contrary to popular belief, the children who create ICs are not on the shy end of the spectrum. In fact, they tend to be more social than other children to really enjoy pretend play, so one way in which they manage when they don't have a playmate immediately available is they play with an IC. Could be that more ICs are around than ever.

What can people at any age do to maintain strong friendships at a distance?

Gleason: Common ground is a critical piece of the relationship. To the extent that friends can enjoy common activities and play at a distance, it's worth trying. Online games work for some children. For older children and adults, a big key to friendship is self-disclosure—sharing thoughts and feelings and ups and downs. Any and all opportunities to continue doing so—Zoom or FaceTime, phone calls, texting, or in person but socially distanced—will help retain these connections.

My teenage daughter and her friends have gone old-school and have sent handwritten letters now and then just as a new and different way to connect. Ellen Berscheid, an expert on relationships, and her colleagues define a close relationship as one in which two people influence each other's thoughts, emotions, and behaviors frequently and over a long time. The friendship will last if those thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are being shared over the distance.