The Effects of Social Distancing on Young Children
Many parents are concerned with the potential impact of social distancing on their children’s social development. Many children have been out of school for months on end with little to no contact with other kids their age. And even when they do get the chance to play with others, masks and social distancing significantly change the playground dynamic.
The good news is, that social development is a lifelong process, and even if there are some setbacks during this pandemic era, children are remarkably resilient and biologically wired to adapt. It’s also worth bearing in mind that there is a large cultural variability of what’s considered ‘normal’ socialising, according to Lisa Serbin (Ph.D), a professor of psychology at Concordia University of Montreal. “There are many cultures where small children rarely see anyone but their cousins and siblings, who they know very well. They turn out just fine once they get to school. They have social skills,” said Dr. Serbin.1
Social and emotional learning begins in infancy and social skills form the foundation for other types of learning. Dr Deborah Phillips (Ph.D), a developmental psychologist, says that among the skills that matter are “the ability to understand your own emotions, empathize with others, make decisions, cope with challenges, develop relationships and take responsibility for mistakes.”2 While a child often learns these skills with peers, family members play a key role, especially in the early years.
What are the long-term effects?
While it is too early for any published research on the effects of the pandemic lockdown on very young children, there is a distant precedent: research was published in 19743 that tracked children who lived through a different global shake-up – the Great Depression. It was found that children who lived through this event showed a significant level of resiliency into the middle years of life and that children from families who overcame the economic fallout with more ease fared better.
What most experts agree on is that the most important factor during this stressful pandemic scenario is that children have a stable, nurturing and loving interaction with their parents and immediate families. The challenge for parents is manage their own worry and concern about their children as well as juggling the increased stressors of financial and health issues, amongst other things. Children need a sense of safety in their direct environment, and this is what parents have control and influence over.
How you can support your child’s social development at home
Even though you child may not be joining playdates or attending parties as much anymore, there is still plenty of opportunity for social learning every day. Here are some suggestions.
Provide opportunities for interactive play
Since kids are naturally spending large amounts of time on devices these days, particularly due to the pandemic, look for ways to encourage opportunities for in-person, interactive play. Good, old fashioned boardgames are a great way to get the whole family involved, or even games like Charades. Kids get to practice taking turns, negotiating and other social skills in these situations.
Practice paying attention to other people
An important social skill is the ability to pay attention to another person while interacting with them. A long-term study5 found that teenagers who had the highest amount of screen time showed a tendency to be more self-absorbed which led to more social problems with friends.
An effective counter-measure to this are some regular daily activities in the home, such as cooking meals or gardening together, playing board games, even sitting together and reading at the same time.
Encourage daily exercise
While this may sound irrelevant to the development of social skills, daily exercise is an important part of self-care and self-regulation and will help kids to keep some sense of equilibrium. Children have fewer resources and means to deal with stress and may well take out some of their frustrations on you, as the parent. Offering them good daily practices from a young age will enhance their ability to cope with the challenges they will encounter in life, be that now or later on.