Having children interact with their friends post-lockdown is more important than ever, says psychologist William Bukowski
Mental health experts have been worrying about the negative effects social isolation is having on children, especially teens, and so the re-opening of summer day camps in Quebec is a development welcomed by parents and young people alike.
According to William Bukowski, a professor of psychology in the Faculty of Arts and Science and Honorary Concordia University Research Chair in Psychology (Tier 1), experiences with peers are especially important during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
“Changes in their daily lives and in the contexts where they usually function have increased levels of uncertainty for many children. A problem for many children is the inability to tolerate that uncertainty. Intolerance of uncertainty is a major component of anxiety,” Bukowski says.
Maintaining contact through social media and cell phones helps older children develop a sense of friendship security, which can affect them for the rest of their lives. In a study written with then-PhD students Megan Wood and Jonathan Santo and published in the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, Bukowski shows that friendship security, more so than any other aspects of friendship, disrupts the continuity of anxiety during the older school-age years.
Bukowski and his current students Bianca Panarello and Ryan Persram have produced a series of pandemic-related video presentations for school-age children. They highlight the ways that children can maintain the positive aspects of their peer experiences during the times when schools and summer camps are closed. They also discuss issues associated with the return to school in September.
In a more recent paper, Bukowski shows that childhood friendships have benefits that extend well beyond adolescence.
Bukowski co-authored the study, published in Psychologica Belgica, with Sabine Nelis, a postdoctoral fellow at Concordia from KU Leuven in Belgium. They look at a group of early adolescents’ quotidian experiences and how their levels of anxiety changed over the course of an average day.
The researchers assessed 94 children in grades five and six (median age: 10.8 years). They questioned them five times a day over the course of four consecutive days. The English-language host school was in the Montreal area and serviced students across the socioeconomic spectrum.
“We asked them questions about their emotions, both positive and negative. We wanted to find out what accounts for those fluctuations in anxiety,” Bukowski explains.
The researchers also drew on data from questionnaires the students filled out reporting their feelings, popularity and self-esteem as well as how they ranked their peers along several criteria.
Friendship leads to stability
Going over the data, the authors found that children who were well-liked and had solid friendship relations reported having higher levels of positive affect — basically, happier feelings — and lower levels of negative affect than children who were not. More importantly, the friended children also experienced fewer fluctuations in their emotional experiences. In particular, across the 20 assessments, they reported much less negative affect and a lower frequency of shifts between positive and negative extremes.
“This really shows that friendships in childhood give people ballast,” Bukowski says. “They even things out and promote stability.”
He notes that constant instability in children can have long-term consequences. Besides leading to an overall lack of contentment, Bukowski says it can have physiological effects, such as the wearing down of the body’s stress response system. That, he says, is why the researchers were operating with the assumption that emotional stability is overall positive.
It’s okay to be alone
Bukowski does note that children who are less popular with their peers are not always at risk.
“One thing that every parent should know is that every child is friendless once in a while. That’s just the way the system works,” he says. “At the same time, every child is friended once in a while. It is really important for children to think about the kind of friend they want and how much balance there is in their relationships overall.”
He adds that parents can help by asking their children at the beginning of the school year what kind of friends they want to have. Do they want to be friends with kids who have status or with those who have similar interests, abilities and values?
Bukowski says he hopes to expand his research by using the same approach for children considered at risk, specifically those with low socioeconomic status and refugees.
Watch the video series on Concordia’s YouTube Channel.