As the COVID-19 pandemic stretched on, children who have been called on to do their part still may not fully understand why they have had to skip play dates or avoid sitting together at lunch tables inside school cafeterias. Older children who are cognizant of much more may be growing weary of social distancing and may have started to question the benefits of staying home.
Social distancing helps maintain public safety, but there’s no denying such measures have produced some difficult side effects, some of which may be felt long after the pandemic has ended. For instance, some experts suggest that social distancing has the potential to affect long-term social development.
“When young children are learning the basics of being social beings, their parents and siblings can provide most of the input they need,” says Amy Learmonth, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist who runs the Cognition, Memory and Development Lab at William Paterson University in New Jersey and has studied children as young as eight weeks old. In fact, having parents and siblings home much of the time actually can be a boon for children age five and younger.
Conversely, Learmonth says older children and adolescents develop social skills by learning to “navigate complex social groups of peers.” Prolonged isolation from peers could be stripping opportunities to naturally develop social skills, particularly the longer social distancing goes on.
Clinical psychologist Laura Markham, founder of the site Aha! Parenting, indicates that kids “practice reading social cues and learn constructive social responses including the give-and-take of conversation how to self-regulate when they get annoyed at another person, and how to ask for what they need in a socially acceptable way” through in-person encounters.
Families can get creative to help foster social skills in their youngsters as the world continues to confront social distancing and its potential side effects.
– Schedule virtual play dates. While it may not be the same as hanging out in person, virtual play dates can provide one-on-one interaction with friends and help to maintain preexisting positive peer connections.
– Plan outdoor activities. When weather allows, people from different households can interact outdoors, provided they keep safe distances. This can be advantageous to teenagers chomping at the bit to hang out with friends. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says one can become infected with COVID-19 when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks and those droplets enter the mouth or nose of another. Outdoor fresh air disperses virus particles and people are more able to keep their distance from others. Sitting in a backyard, walking a boardwalk or riding bikes together are some ways for adolescents to safely maintain social connections.
– Practice good manners. When at home, families can continue to interact and offer opportunities to talk, listen and practice social manners.
– Foster game nights. Encourage social interaction at home with family game nights that involve board games or video games. Teens and tweens also can do multiplayer games with friends over the internet through their favorite gaming consoles.
A little creativity can help parents find ways to promote socialization in their children as the world continues to practice social distancing.