How Your Child Can Socialise In A Pandemic

If you’re worried that being stuck at home for months will affect your children’s ability to socialise, read on to know how they can connect to others from a distance.

By Dr Meghna Singhal  • 14 min read

How Your Child Can Socialise In A Pandemic

Socialisation is the process whereby children learn to display behaviours and imbibe beliefs and values of their social group. Simply put, through socialisation your child learns how to behave in social situations and picks up important social skills, such as getting along with peers, resolving conflicts and interacting with a wide range of people, from friends to authority figures.

Actually, for your child, every play date, class, birthday party or outing to the playground is a wonderful opportunity for social connection. Now that the pandemic has made social distancing the new normal, children are missing out on play and peer interactions. You’re probably wondering: Will this social isolation affect my child’s social development?

Let’s examine the different ways in which we can answer this question.

1. If being exposed to social situations helps a child develop social skills, is the reverse true? That is, does the lack of opportunity to participate in social situations affect the development of social skills? Well, the answer is yes and no. Yes, when the period of isolation is longer and no, when you have responsive caregivers who can help provide socialisation opportunities. If the period of social isolation is small (and developmentally, a delay of 2–3 months is not significant), the child can more than make up for the lost time, when provided the chance to “catch up”.

2. Does social isolation affect children of different ages differently? Yes, age does make a difference.

  • Your preschooler, just starting to learn how to interact with peers, may be at a disadvantage in the lockdown. The lack of routine and limited socialisation may cause him to regress in areas such as speech development, potty training, and eating and sleeping patterns. He’s not developmentally ready to utilise tools—such as talking on the phone or messaging—that adults otherwise use to compensate for face-to-face contact.
  • Due to social isolation, your primary schooler is bereft of opportunities to refine her social skills (e.g., problem-solving), resolve conflicts and alter her behaviours based on feedback from others. Moreover, she’s unable to imbibe behavioural expectations from a wide range of adults in her social world. 
  • Your preteen or teen is perhaps most affected by the lack of social interactions. During adolescence, the brain is wired to move away from parents and towards peers, making the pandemic time even more challenging for your teen. He may be struggling to adjust to the new normal, and may find it hard to maintain a healthy emotional equilibrium. He may even become vulnerable to mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety.

3. Will children who are shy or introverted become even more withdrawn during social isolation?Exposure to social situations is the key to a child’s social development, particularly for children who may have some vulnerabilities in terms of being shy or who are hesitant about social interactions. And given the high safety concerns, this is a really valid concern,” says Dr Nithya Poornima, assistant professor of child and adolescent psychology at NIMHANS, Bengaluru. So, do you have a reason to be worried? The short answer—not necessarily. Again, much depends on the support you provide your child.

Helping your child socialise in a pandemic

Parents of younger children

  • Pretend play. “See how you can introduce a lot of ‘pretend’ in your child’s play,” recommends Dr Poornima. “Pretend play helps develop social quotient. When a child engages in pretend play, for the brain it’s real. The brain thinks, for example, if I were going to a birthday party, what would I be doing? What would I tell my friend? What will my friend tell me? Of course, in the absence of a real peer, pretend play has its limitations, but it’s one way for the child to exercise her abilities to see what could be done in a given situation.” To aid your child’s pretend play and spark her imagination, create a dress-up corner for your child or give her a prop box. If she wants to play with you, let her take the lead.
  • Reading. Think of what a good conversation requires: the ability to give your full attention, to be present in the moment, to wait for the other person to finish their thought before adding your own and to stay in the conversation, even if it becomes tedious or a source of conflict. Reading books helps children hone these abilities. Moreover, it enables your child to build patience and develop focus and concentration, while enhancing her understanding of social situations (even the ones laden with conflict, thereby improving the social problem-solving ability). Reading also teaches children empathy. By reading books, children not only understand their own emotions and thoughts but also those of others.
  • Watching TV. Really? How can screen time help with your child’s socialisation? For your young child, screen time can carry benefits if you co-view, that is, watch the content along with your child. Talking to your child in parallel about what he’s watching and discussing the different situations and scenarios with him will help him understand different social situations. You can ask about what is happening, what each of the characters is thinking or how your child might feel (or what he might do) if he’s in a similar situation.
  • Video calling. Just like adults have found virtual replacements for their social needs, such as Zoom parties and regular video chats, young children can be introduced to online tools. Celebrating your child’s birthday by inviting her friends on Zoom, setting up virtual play dates or having grandparents video chat with her can help achieve the goal of having that serve-and-return conversation that you want. Of course, it’ll be even better if you could stream the video chat from your mobile phone to a TV screen. Otherwise, there’s every chance your young child may get more interested in the phone itself than who’s on the screen!

But your child may still miss playing. She may still miss her friends. Moreover, she may throw tantrums and get upset for no apparent reason, as she may not be able to express her feelings in words.

My 4-year-old son wants to play with other children. I take him out for an evening walk, as our apartment playground is closed. When he sees another child and wants to go over and play with him, I have to stop him. I wonder what message I am giving to him about interacting with others!”

Dear parent, your concern is understandable. Neighbourhood children playing close together, even for an hour, is not safe, especially given the frequency of asymptomatic paediatric coronavirus cases. So, safety first!

Keep your son indoors, and supervise him when he’s playing outdoors. Talk to him about the coronavirus and when he does try to play with others, gently remind him that keeping him safe is your most important job. Tell him that this is only temporary—these limits will end and soon he’ll be able to play with other children again.

When outdoors, ensure that your child has enough opportunities to move and exercise. Take nature walks and bike rides and bring along activities that enrich the experience. Kick a ball on grass, shoot hoops or play hide-and-seek with your child. Encourage him to interact with family and friends over the internet. Let him use his imagination with his friends by doing arts and crafts or playing pretend over video chat.

Parents of older children/teens

  • Stay connected using technology. Social distancing doesn’t mean social isolation. So help your child use technology to stay connected with her peers. Video calling, phone conversations, texting and social media are some ways she can interact with her friends. Ensure that you have ongoing conversations with her about cybersecurity risks as well as the parameters and expectations regarding gadget use when communicating with friends.
  • Practise role play. As your child is unable to attend school or play his favourite sport, he’s deprived of opportunities to be with his peers and tackle multifarious social situations. A good way of getting him to practise social skills is to role-play real-life situations. You could start by having your child pretend to be the person he has difficulty talking to or getting along with. Once you understand how your child perceives the situation (or the person), switch roles to see what he does when pretending to interact with the person. Accordingly, give him suggestions on dealing with the situation (or person) more effectively. Don’t forget to emphasise micro-skills (such as body language and eye contact) employed in social situations.
  • Join hobby groups. Online clubs and hobby circles are great places for your teen to indulge in her activity of interest. When social media is a positive experience, it can help teens feel connected. Learning a new craft or honing her skills will also improve your child’s self-esteem, which is a precursor to social well-being.
  • Family time. Cooperation—working together to achieve a common goal—is an important skill for successfully getting along within a community. During this lockdown, you can create opportunities for your family to work together by assigning everyone specific jobs as part of a task or big project. Be it making a family meal together or planting a garden, family tasks can teach your teen to pitch in joint tasks, share the load, follow directions and cooperate to achieve a common goal.

Children around the world are unable to do what they ought to be doing at their age. Not being able to do ordinary things like going out or playing with friends or celebrating birthday parties is affecting them both mentally and physically. As parents, we need to step in and find ways to reduce the effects of social isolation on our children.

In a nutshell

  • Socialisation helps children learn various social skills, such as how to get along with peers, resolve conflicts and interact with others.
  • Lack of socialisation or limited socialisation can cause behavioural issues in children of every age from preschoolers to teens.
  • Parents can minimise the effects of social isolation on children; however, at times, children will miss being with friends or going out to play.

What you can do right away

  • If you’re the parent of a young child, you can help your child beat boredom and learn social skills through activities, such as pretend play, reading and watching TV.
  • You can help your older child hone social skills through role playing to help him understand how to interact with others and tackle different situations.
  • If used well, technology can prove to be a valuable ally. Depending on your child’s age, you can use technology for serve-and-return conversations, getting your child to join online clubs or learning new skills.

About the author:
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD, on 7 August 2020.
Dr Singhal is the Manager, Global Content Solutions at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree in clinical psychology from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).

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