There are a lot of unknowns during the current pandemic we are experiencing. One of the unknowns that has weighed heavily on my mind is how self-isolation is impacting children and their social skills. Will they come out of this time lacking the basic social skills that we typically form during childhood?
I am the mother to a 1-year-old baby. I have been working from home since she was born, so she never attended daycare, and therefore always had limited interactions with other kids. I was already worried about her opportunity to learn social skills. By being home with me, was she missing out on important early socialization? I know she’s young, but as parents we seem to be programmed to worry about these things.
I did what I could to give her opportunities to be around other babies, attending a local baby and me group every week. Around 7 months old, she started to actually notice the other babies, crawl towards them, and even started to play with them! OK, truthfully she mostly would crawl to them, hit them in the face, and pull their hair, but she was interacting with them and that felt big.
Then, COVID-19 hit, and we didn’t leave the house for months. Goodbye baby-and-me group and all her opportunities for social interaction. Again, that worry came back. Are these key formative months for her to start to understand how to play and share with other babies? My concern seems small; after all, she is so young. I discussed these feelings with mothers to older kids, and it seems to be a point of stress across the board.
Knowing that this is a concern that parents to kids of all ages were thinking about, I spoke with child and family psychologist, Nina Kaiser, Ph.D of Practice San Francisco to see how worried we should be about our kid’s socialization in the age of self-isolation. And if we’re worried, what are the practical steps we can take to foster our kid’s social skills during all of this time apart from other kids.
Should we be worried?
While it’s perfectly normal to worry, the good news is, there is a lot we can do to help our children’s social skills during this time. Kids aren’t destined to come out of self-isolation as socially awkward. Even though my daughter can’t attend her play group, she’ll likely still learn hitting kids in the face and pulling their hair isn’t nice. Phew.
When it comes to really little kids, those under 2 years of age, there is not a major need to worry right now. Many kids in this age range are home with a parent in normal circumstances, and therefore already don’t have a ton of social contact with other children. Kaiser shares that the best thing we can do as parents—during a pandemic and in normal circumstances—is to give our children focused attention and interaction. Read, talk, and sing to your babies and kids. It’s important to partake in activities that will foster their cognitive and emotional development, and these can be done by a parent and not necessarily another child.
Do older kids need more support?
As for older kids, thankfully there are still ways to practice social skills while staying home. Again, the parent’s role is important to help kids develop key skills, like conversational skills, perspective-taking, and empathy. Even if you are feeling burnt out on Zoom, it’s a good way to allow your children the opportunity to interact with other kids and work on their communication, expressing interest, and keeping conversations going. You can also use these virtual playdates as a way to discuss with your child how they think other participants are feeling and thinking.
For kids with siblings, these built-in best friends (whether they like it or not!) can act as a great way to practice socialization with peers. And if you are the parent of an only child, not to worry. Again, focused parent attention and engagement is incredibly important. As you and your child stay home, Kaiser warns not to cater too much to them. Playing with adults offers opportunities for social skill development that can translate well to peer relationships.
What can parents do to create more socialization?
As any mother knows, worrying about our children is hard to avoid, and it’s understandable to worry as we’re in a situation that is new to all of us. Kaiser explained, “Worry can be helpful in that it motivates you to take action.” If you are concerned, figure out what small steps you can take to help support your kids socially. Perhaps that means having more focused attention and time with them, reading more books together, playing more games (and Kaiser recommends that you don’t always let them win, good sportsmanship is an important social skill to learn!), keeping your phone in the other room to avoid distraction, and setting up FaceTime and Zoom hangouts.
It can be hard to assess if your child is struggling socially, especially as we stay home. Take note if you see any shifts or changes in social behavior (such as reduced enthusiasm for contact with other kids, or completely stopping social activities they’ve consistently done before that remain available options now). Kaiser encourages parents to talk with their kids directly about the way things have changed. Ask if they are feeling OK about how things are going socially, and if not, how they might wish for that to change. If they do seem to be struggling socially, remember there are ways you can foster opportunities to be socially distant and social at the same time.
There are creative ways to practice social skills that go beyond FaceTime and Zoom parties. Kids can play multiplayer video games, partake in Netflix parties, can have socially distant in-person meetups outside, socially distant walks, bike rides, can drop off surprise art packs or treats for friends, or can chat across the sidewalk.
And if you still are cornered, Kaiser encourages parents to take a deep breath. Kids are incredibly resilient, and there will be plenty of time after this is over to course-correct and support their growth, allowing them to thrive. All children are currently in the same boat. If nothing else helps to ease your mind, know that you and your kids aren’t alone in this and everyone will be dealing with the same thing when life returns to normal. Maybe we will all come out of this a touch socially awkward for a bit, but in the end, we’ll be OK.