In this week's Teen Talk column, a college freshman who lived at home for an extra year through remote learning shares the silver lining of lockdown: how she unexpectedly built a deeper connection with her siblings.

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By the end of the senior year of high school, I could probably count on one hand the number of hours my family spent together each week. On a typical weekday, I'd maybe see my parents for 20 minutes before I'd run out the door to school, and by the time I came home from extracurricular activities and finished my homework, we'd maybe catch up for half-hour before bed. I spent even less time with my two younger siblings, ages 14 and 12, who had their own sports teams, clubs, and social lives that took up their evenings and weekends. Spending little time with my family wasn't ideal, but it felt normal for a family like mine who likes to stay busy. I was preparing to head off to college in the fall and this independence felt right. Then COVID-19 spread, my school went remote, and suddenly my family found ourselves together-all the time-for the next 15 months.

I was so excited to move to my college's campus, a four-hour drive from my home, and live in the dorms. It was crushing to learn that I would have to stay home for an extra year as our country went into lockdown. But what started as a frustrating time for my family turned into a huge silver lining: During the course of my freshman year of college, I connected with my family in a way I didn't expect.

Over the past year, I have not only had more time to be with my family but also the opportunity to truly build an extraordinarily strong connection with them. We weren't necessarily as thick as thieves before COVID. My brother and I didn't know how to describe our relationship because there wasn't much to say. My baby sister and I got along well but we didn't have time to make meaningful memories. We were all going through different struggles over the course of the lockdown, but not having to face these times alone got us through them. Now they are going to be the people I miss the most when I finally leave for college at the end of this summer.

Studies show that teens struggled with their mental health during the pandemic-their worlds got smaller and their stress, anxiety, and depression increased. But having my siblings by my side during this unprecedented time was surprisingly helpful.

We Helped Each Other With Remote Learning

I didn't realize that my sister and brother's learning experiences were so drastically different until COVID-19. I wasn't very involved in conversations about their classes when I was in high school. I was busy with my own homework once we were home so I never helped them with theirs. But once remote learning started, I realized how different we all learn and how helpful each of us can be during study time. My brother is a visual learner-since I have been home I've been able to help him study by making flashcards with him, drawing out what he read or learned in class, and writing out his assignments. I discovered that my brother is not adjusting well to virtual learning and needs lots of reminders, meanwhile my baby sister is thriving during virtual learning with all A's.

We Became Each Other's Social Life

Each week one of my siblings or I chose an activity for us to do as a group. We were normally too busy with our own friends to hang out with each other, but now that we weren't seeing friends in person, we relied on each other for companionship. Together we made TikToks, sang karaoke, created scrapbooks, gardened, and played tag. We even spent a day teaching our grandmother how to use various technologies. We spent the majority of our time outside to abandon the feeling of being stuck at home.

Our favorite thing to do together was picnicking. Regardless if we were picnicking at the beach, the park, or even our backyard we always had a blast by watching movies, flying kites, eating homemade food, painting, playing cards, or even stargazing.

We Ate Dinners as a Family

Our family started having dinner together every night. Eating dinner together has most definitely brought us a lot closer together. According to a poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Health in 2013, 46 percent of families say it's too difficult to eat together on a regular basis with busy schedules. Thanks to the lockdown, we do not fall into that category anymore. By having dinners together, we have family table discussions, which are essential to helping us feel more connected and happier. Taking turns to share about our day allows us to bond, open communication, and show support for one another. Eating together as a family unexpectedly played a key role in helping me feel closer to my family.

Quarantining during COVID-19 allowed me to value the time I have with my family and to ensure that time has a purpose. When I reflect on the last year and a half I spent with my family, I am grateful for the memories made because when I attend college in the fall I won't have my siblings readily available to make more memories. I'll remember the time my sister won her first tennis match against my brother and when we found out that I could paint a dinosaur really well, instead of possibly remembering the fights we'd get in when we were younger or the countless hours of sitting in the living room next to each other, all staring at our phones.

Families are like branches on a tree. We grow in different directions yet our roots remain as one. As I begin this new direction and chapter of college, I am completely connected with my roots and my family. My first year of college may have not been traditional, but I wouldn't trade it for the world.

Dasia Bandy is a military youth that recently earned the 2021 U.S. Navy Military Child of the Year Award. She is studying international affairs and journalism at George Washington University. Bandy is passionate about educating youth about holistic health and creating an environment for leaders to emerge through activism. She's determined to make a difference.