(CNN)During school shutdowns, educators did their best to re-create in-class learning online. But what about the kind of learning that happens in the hallways in-between classes, or on the playground during lunch and after school?
How to help your kids readjust to social dynamics at school
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Those in-person social interactions, the sort that emotionally challenge, enlighten and torment our children, were not transferable to video conference calls.
Now the kids are back, in the presence of the peers they click with, peers they forgot about, and peers they weren't particularly looking forward to seeing again. Late-childhood friendships are hard enough as it is, as the business of figuring out who we are in the context of others makes for a rather messy process. Add a year or more away from a physical campus, and social connection can be even trickier.
CNN spoke to Judith Warner, the author of "And Then They Stopped Talking To Me: Making Sense of Middle School," about how to help make this transition as tearless as possible for kids. Warner explained the awkwardness of reacclimating to social life as an older child, the brain chemistry of this period, and how well-meaning adults may be complicating matters for their kids. While she focuses her book and research on middle school kids, the lessons and insights apply to all ages, including (sometimes) grown-ups.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
CNN: How could all that time off from in-person school be making life more complicated for some kids now that they are back?
Judith Warner: Kids are experiencing a combination of being thrilled to be out and seeing people and doing at least some of the same activities they loved doing beforehand, and going through a period of adjustment to being back.
Kids who are struggling to socialize or reacclimate may be experiencing sensory overload and are exhausted. On one hand, socialization is hardwired. But on the other hand, if you don't socialize then the wiring doesn't develop at the same speed. Social skills, like academic skills, get stronger through practice. After a year and half off, it makes sense that kids' social skills are rusty. Mine are rusty, too.
CNN: Any benefits to that time away that adults should try to encourage or preserve?
Warner: During that long break, a lot of tweens and teens reconnected with friends they had moved on from -- maybe because they weren't in the same social circle or maybe because one was on their way to being "cool" and the other wasn't. During the pandemic there wasn't the social geography of the school day, with all its cliques and informal rules about who stands where during recess. That was disruptive in a sometimes-good way because it meant that kids felt freer to be in touch with whom they wanted to be in touch with.
CNN: What's going on in the tween and teen brain that makes them particularly sensitive to the life interruption we all just experienced?
Warner: There are important parts of the brain that have a huge growth surge right around puberty. As a result, kids this age develop an incredibly sharp memory, and everything affects them more. They are also hardwired to crave approval and popularity from peers. But this is the teenager variety of approval and popularity, which is based on perceived power and appearance, as opposed to people actually liking you.
It's kind of like a sick cosmic joke. You are suddenly more aware of how others see you right around the time that meanness and bullying spike.
But there is a good side to it, too. At this age, kids can have wonderful friendships, filled with joy, and discover all kinds of interests and follow them with passion. The world opens up to them, and it can be a good or bad thing.
CNN: How should adults speak to kids about any social awkwardness they might be experiencing right now?
Warner: To start, it's important to follow their lead and not bring up something if the kids don't and otherwise seem fine. I think we are all inclined to overidentify with our kids so if they are in pain, we are in pain. We also tend to hold on to it longer than they do and have it hang over us like a dark cloud, when they have moved on.
It's also important to make sure kids know they have someone to go to and talk about hard social situations. It might be a parent, or someone at school like a teacher or a counselor who they trust and feel close to and who will give them objective feedback.