Parental Guidance: Help your teens become social beings again

As more and more kids step back into the real world of in-person school, many of them, especially teenagers, may struggle with how to become social beings again.

By Geetika Sasan Bhandari

In the past few months, I’ve asked several teenagers if they are excited to go back to in-person school, and surprisingly, several have said they would rather continue with online classes, at home. Some say their friends are not going back yet so they don’t want to go, some are just happier to not have to wake up early, get ready, do the commute. They’d rather just wake up, freshen up and sit for class and shower later as and when they want to.

Personally, I find this odd. I was at a boarding school, so going back to school post-holidays was always very exciting. Imagine living with your friends 24/7 and doing everything together! By the time we were teenagers we had stopped missing home and long holidays were often a tad boring. Day scholars too, I’m sure, were happy to get away from home and be with their peer group for more than half the day before getting home to strict parents, tuitions, and regimented routines.

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However, the pandemic has turned everything on its head and, technically, children now don’t even live at home, but in a virtual bubble. They study, socialise, shop, play, watch movies, listen to music, and hang out online. They are already active inhabitants of the ‘metaverse’. So it’s not odd to find them almost shunning real school, real connections, real interactions.

But all of us know that the world does not exist only online and real-world social skills are very important. So if you find your teen resisting school, and not wanting to meet up with friends in person, you know it’s time to help nudge them back to regular life.

Encourage your teenager to pursue an activity (not online) that they enjoy. They are more likely to develop bonds with people who share similar interests. Model empathy, so your teen does too. Real connections cannot be forged without empathy, without being able to understand and feel how someone else is feeling. When your friends or family come over, don’t let the teen sit inside his/her room with the door shut. Tell them they should come out for a little while and say hello. Regular everyday conversations help to enhance social and communication skills and build confidence. Also, talk to your teen so they can express how they are feeling. Sometimes, just voicing it helps to not only acknowledge the feelings but also to recognize and label them. Validate your child’s concerns. Do not make light of it or laugh it off because it seems trivial to you.

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Going back to a routine also helps in instilling so many other skills such as efficient time management; you have to sort out and pay attention to the uniform a night before, pack the bag every day, adhere to a timetable, plan school meals. When teens study from home, rarely do they follow any of these. If your child is still doing homeschooling, insist on him/her following a daily routine even at home. It’s also a good way to ease them back into the routine physical school requires. However, as any parent to a teenager knows, do not impose these on your kid. Instead, talk it over and mutually decide. Maybe the child wants to shower later during a break, but is happy to make their bed and freshen up and be at the desk on time. If the school asks for kids to be in uniform and have their cameras on, insist on your child following the protocol.

When I was younger, I grew up on a tea garden in Assam with very limited access to formal schooling. I didn’t attend Nursery, KG, or even Class 1 anywhere. My first year of formal schooling was at a Delhi boarding school in Class 2 and I was taking the entrance for a boarding school in Dehradun that my older sister was already at. However, the latter kept abolishing junior classes, so after Class 2, my parents decided to pull me out, take me back to the tea gardens, made me do the entire class 3 syllabus during the summer break, and I had to jump a class and go straight to Class 4 at the age of 8. The moral of this story is not to tell you that I was some sort of child genius; it’s to tell you that social interactions are very important at all stages.

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While we always spent a few minutes wishing our parents’ friends and talking to them at dinners, I didn’t have much interaction with children my age. My sister went to boarding school when I was just one, so I met her only during the summer and winter breaks. At the boarding school I attended in Delhi, I remember having just one good friend and even worse, I remember an incident where I said something very inappropriate to someone; it was not intended that way but it came across as hurtful and lacking empathy. That person was very hurt and cried for a long time, and I have never forgotten the talk my mother gave me much later about words hurting more than a knife. Sure, I was just seven, yet that is no reason to have not thought about the impact my words could have. I was very obviously lacking in social skills.

Whether it’s at seven or 13, social skills are a very important part of personality building. When you meet an adult who does not shake your hand firmly, who does not make eye contact, who cannot initiate conversation, who shies away from meeting new people, you realise that this stems from not having built this skill set at a younger age. So whether at home or back to in-person school, pay attention to not just your child’s grades but also their personality.

(The writer is former Editor of Child, and has recently launched a parenting platform called Let’s Raise Good Kids. She has two kids.)

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