Children have been pretty isolated for almost a year. Over half of school-agers were attending school virtually as the new year began, and some toddlers are nearing their first birthdays without having ever been able to meet extended relatives. Parents understand that it’s in everyone’s best interest to hunker down, but many are worried their kids are “forgetting” how to be social. That’s because without school and recess, many kids have lost their main channels of social communication.
A recent survey conducted by OnePoll on behalf of the Genius of Play, a movement dedicated to bringing more play into kids’ lives, asked 2,000 parents with children aged 2-18 what they thought the effects of quarantines would be on their children. About 52 percent of them said they’re worried their child will have greater difficulty connecting with people face-to-face in the future. Another 68 percent also said they believe their child’s social skills were already stunted from spending so much time in relative isolation.
Kids definitely seem to be feeling these changes, too. One toddler mom recently told us her daughter now thinks restaurants, where people eat indoors, are “just pretend.” Another mom said her 10-year-old announced he no longer wanted to interact with people outside his immediate family, while a teacher said the kids she’s teaching seem awkward even in the most basic social situations, as if they’ve forgotten how to interact with others.
The news isn’t just anecdotal, however. In England, an education watchdog group’s recent report warns parents that children are taking significant steps back with their social skills as a result of the lockdowns there.
Social situations are an important aspect of child development and one of the primary ways that children learn to develop life skills, including how to have a basic conversation. But with many of those interactions greatly diminished, parents are wondering what they can do to keep their kids social skills from disappearing entirely. So how can parents minimize the impact?
First, know who is most at risk
The impact on your child will be tied to their age, their personality, and the environment in your home. The main take-away: As long as there’s at least one supportive adult in the household, the vast majority of kids will come out of this just fine—especially if their other basic needs are being met.
Young kids will likely fare the best. From infancy through early elementary school, children are much more reliant on parents or caregivers than peers anyway. “The most important thing that all children need is a sense of safety,” said Jack Shonkoff, M.D, a pediatrician who directs Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child. “The younger you are, the more that sense of safety comes from adults who care for you.” Around age 10, kids start turning to peers more for socialization—and older adolescents can feel the impact even more, as they’re kept home instead of practicing increased independence.
Children who are normally very social will obviously miss interacting the most, while shy or anxious children might welcome the time at home. In any case, socializing with parents, siblings, and even pets can go a long way toward teaching necessary social skills and filling that need for connection. And video chats, virtual games, and certain safe in-person socialization can fill in the gaps until things get back to normal.
Socializing safely in person
Some experts think it’s important for young kids to interact with their peers in person, even during a pandemic, so long as everyone is practicing safety measures. “A lot of social emotional learning occurs in peer groups,” says Miami family therapist Tania Paredes, Ph.D., LCSW. “Peer interaction is not only how kids learn to socialize but it also teaches them how to take turns, how to cooperate with others, how to understand and express their emotions, and how to cope with challenges, especially when things don’t go your way.” And that’s just the start!
“If kids are still not being social, now is a good time to start,” Paredes says. So long as cases aren’t rising in your area and kids are taking precautions, such as wearing masks and maintaining safe distances, play dates are doable. Research shows that young children aren’t the superspreaders we worried they’d be, and with the proper measures in place, it’s safe to practice some form of social play—even if it looks pretty different from playing together in the past.
Parks are good places to take kids because they can play outdoors without necessarily getting close. Relay races and other backyard games should also be OK, so long as everyone stays a safe distance from each other. Try some creative outdoor playdate ideas that are perfect, even in winter weather. “You can also sign up your child for an outdoor music lesson or class of some kind,” Dr. Paredes says. “A small sports league where children are allowed to wear masks while playing is also generally considered safe, as are sports and activities that allow you to be part of a team without requiring closeness, such as tennis and bowling.” The American Academy of Pediatrics adds outdoor storytime, scavenger hunts, bike rides, playing catch, and kicking around a soccer ball to the list of activities that can get children outside socializing safely.
Ways to boost social skills indoors
If you’re stuck indoors, you still have lots of options. With younger kids, you can try “pretend play” in which everyone assumes a role and interacts with each other. This works even if it’s just you and your immediate family. Play restaurant. Have a tea party. Create a pretend store. So long as you’re choosing a game that requires interaction, it will help them flex their social “muscles” and practice all sorts of social scenarios. If you’re still concerned about playdates with children outside the home, this is a great way for siblings to help offset the lack of peer interaction children are experiencing. If you are your child’s main playmate—but you’re not the biggest fan of imagination play—there are simple ways to make pretend play fun for everyone involved.
You can also help boost your kids’ social skills in other ways from home. Talk about how others might be feeling, whether that’s a character in a book, a sibling they had an argument with, or the family pet. Give your child age-appropriate jobs around the house to instill a sense of responsibility and belonging. Play games to foster connection, as well as reinforce concepts like taking turns and being a gracious winner. Encourage them to write letters, draw pictures, or enjoy video chats with friends, neighbors, and distant relatives. These skills will translate back to peer relationships as things open back up.
Finding another family to participate in safe playdates can be a lifesaver, too. “I call it finding your COVID-19 circle of trust,” Dr. Paredes says. “It’s not just the children who benefit, but the parents, too, because they’re getting some level of interaction with other adults as well.” Just make sure you share common values and practices related to COVID-19, she adds. And always follow local guidelines about gathering that take into account the virus activity in your area.
Don’t worry—your kids will be ok
Whatever you do, don’t forget that children are extremely resilient, and this situation is temporary. Even if kids miss out on peer interactions for a while, they will very likely catch up. “It’s usually adults who have a harder time with things like this,” Paredes says. If you have a middle or high schooler, be aware of any abrupt changes in their mood or behavior, but otherwise expect highs and lows similar to what everyone else is feeling. Remember that simply asking your children how they’re feeling can go a long way. “It doesn’t replicate being with their peers in person, but any positive interaction is better than none,” Paredes says.
“Even though this is unusual, most kids will come out of this fine because we’re biologically wired to adapt,” Dr. Shonkoff reassures parents. As long as everyone is safe, healthy, and in tune with each other’s feelings, the kids—and the parents—will more than likely come out of this alright.