- Social distancing may be particularly difficult for some children and teens.
- As children get older and more socially adept, their peer group becomes the more important hub of their social development than their immediate family.
- Experts say that while some parents may worry about the impact stay-at-home orders can have on a child’s social development, they will likely bounce back quickly if isolation only lasts a few months.
- Kids may be lonely and in need of some additional attention and support from parents during this time.
The idea of long-term social distancing is daunting for everyone, but perhaps especially so for parents who have now become their children’s main outlet for social interaction.
In fact, as we prepare for a longer period of social distancing, many parents may be wondering how all this time away from others could affect the social development of their kids.
Amy Learmonth, PhD, is a developmental psychologist who has studied children as young as 8 weeks old, looking at how they think and how their abilities change over time.
She runs the Cognition, Memory, and Development Lab at William Paterson University of New Jersey and is also president of the Eastern Psychological Association.
“Social development has important impacts at all ages, but for the purposes of social distancing, the kids who are likely to suffer the most are in late childhood and adolescence,” Learmonth told Healthline.
She says early social development can take place mostly within the family, but that as children get older and more socially adept, their peer group becomes the more important hub of social development.
“Young children are learning the basics of being social beings, and their parents and siblings can provide most of the input they need, while older children and adolescents are learning to navigate complex social groups of peers,” Learmonth said.
Author Wendy Walsh, PhD, a psychologist specializing in attachment, agrees with Learmonth and adds that the younger years can actually be critically vulnerable times for attachment.
“For kids under 5, this may actually be great for them,” she explained. “Just having mom and dad home to attach with 24/7 — we may come out of this and realize we have a lot of kids who now have really healthy attachment styles.”
But for older kids and adolescents, it gets more complicated. Particularly the longer social distancing goes on.
What healthy social development should look like during those years
“In late childhood and adolescence, children start to strike out on their own,” Learmonth explained. “Friendships become more complex and more about shared interests. This is where children try out the things that will make their adult friendships work, or not.”
Among those relationship skills, Learmonth says kids in late childhood and adolescence are learning how to both find and provide support to their friends, developing the skills for building trust and dealing with betrayal.
This is also the time when they’re usually figuring out how to form friendships with deeper roots than just proximity and play.
“They do this by experimenting,” Learmonth said. “They are in the process of figuring out who they are and what they want from their friends. This is why those friendships in middle school particularly can be fragile and most kids experience some isolation and heartbreak.”
While those years, and those friendships, can be hard to navigate, they’re also crucial stepping stones to healthy adult relationships later in life.
These types of friendships are far more difficult to replicate over screens, or while maintaining 6 feet (or more) of distance.
How short-term social distancing could affect social development
If social distancing lasts just a few months, most experts agree kids will bounce back just fine.
“This generation of teenagers have been virtually socializing with their friends their whole lives,” said developmental psychologist and family coach Cameron Caswell, PhD. “They are used to connecting through their devices and online, so that part of social distancing will likely be easier on them than the rest of us.”
She points out that plenty of teens are already adapting to the new social rules, hosting FaceTime sleepovers, long video chats, watching movies as a group through Netflix Party, and gathering virtually on social networks like Houseparty.
“Other than having to deal with boredom (which is actually a good thing) and missing out on some major life milestones like field trips, prom, and graduation, I don’t believe 3 months of social distancing will have a negative impact on this age group,” Caswell said.
In fact, she says she thinks it could be an opportunity for families to slow down, reconnect, reset their sleep schedules, and breathe.
Learmonth agrees, saying that while kids may be lonely and in need of some additional attention and support, “I would not expect any major disruptions or lasting impacts of a couple of months of social distancing.”
But what if this stretches on for years?
Both experts agree that a longer-term period of social distancing is when negative effects on social development would begin to develop.
“All humans crave personal interaction, touch, novelty, and excitement. So, I believe prolonged isolation will start to wear tremendously on everyone,” Caswell said. “However, I also believe that the long-term effects of prolonged isolation will be more substantial for teens.”
The reason for this increased negative impact, she explains, ultimately comes down to brain development.
“Our brains go through their two biggest growth spurts during infancy and adolescence. These are the two periods where our brains are the most malleable and primed for learning,” she said.
Caswell adds that adolescence is one of the most formative life stages, explaining that the skills developed, the beliefs formed, and the ways we perceive ourselves and how we interact with the world during this stage play a major role in defining who we become as adults.
“If our teens’ experiences are stunted during this time, if they’re short-changed on opportunities to grow, learn, and develop, I believe the impact from prolonged isolation will be greater on them,” she said.
Caswell further adds that while virtual interactions can be beneficial in the short term, they’re not a satisfactory substitute for real-life interactions.
“The quality of connection and level of intimacy is not the same,” she explained. “The joyous moments brought by subtle interactions and spontaneous responses are lost.”
Walsh agrees, saying it’s the give and take of in-person interactions from which kids gain the most benefit.
“That’s where they are learning to share, to take turns, to resolve conflicts — none of which can be accomplished as effectively through screens,” Walsh said.
Caswell adds it’s important to remember much of a child’s social development occurs outside their family and friend groups.
“Through school, clubs, and other larger communities, teens learn to meet new people, interact with authority figures, handle group dynamics, and navigate a wide variety of different situations,” she said, explaining that extracurricular activities allow adolescents to explore other interests and uncover more unique aspects of their identity.
“Being isolated at home can dramatically decrease their opportunities for new experiences and self-discovery,” she said.
Will this impact be greater on children who don’t have siblings?
Parents of a single child (aka an “only child”) may be even more concerned about their social development while social distancing, knowing their son or daughter doesn’t even have a sibling relationship from which they can learn.
However, Learmonth says parents with multiple children should be aware that while “it is possible that only children will be more lonely than children with siblings… sibling relationships, as important as they can be, cannot replace the peer relationships our children are learning to navigate.”
In the end, she says all kids are going to be craving those friendships that simply can’t be replicated at home.
How parents can help kids continue to socially develop while stuck at home
Both experts shared the following four tips that parents can use to help their children continue positive social development while they’re stuck at home.
1. Provide opportunities for interactive play
Instead of setting younger kids in front of screens and letting them have hours-long conversations with friends, Walsh suggests having them do something interactive, like playing a board game with family members.
“That way they have to actually take turns, negotiate, and practice some social skills,” she said. “You can find games that are simple and order them on Amazon.”
2. Give them outs
“Many of our older kids will need someplace to escape the togetherness of quarantine,” Learmonth said. “This is developmentally appropriate. They miss their friends but are also sometimes stressed by the constant presence of their family.”
She says parents should remain available to provide support while respecting their need for space.
“This is a time of turning toward peer relationships, and we are just not cool anymore. Don’t take this personally. They love you even when they appear to be doing their best to push you away,” she said.
3. Understand their need to be online
“Many teens crave social interaction,” Caswell said. “If we want to keep them inside, it’s important to enable other ways for them to talk with their friends.”
She suggests becoming familiar with the apps teens are using. Help them set necessary safety parameters, and let them know you’ll be asking them to show you what they’ve been doing online from time to time.
“Always be transparent about what you do so they learn from it rather than rebel and circumvent your restrictions,” she said.
4. Encourage exercise every day
Learmonth says that while this may sound irrelevant to social development, “it is important to functioning and will help your child keep their equilibrium in these uncertain times.”
There are no perfect answers here, and we’re all doing the best we can to navigate these uncharted waters. But Learmonth says the most important thing any parent can do is be kind to themselves and their children.
“Children have fewer resources to deal with the stress of this unprecedented time,” she explained, adding that parents should expect their children to sometimes take their frustration out on you, and that you should try to offer support when they do.
“We are all dealing with the uncertainty and stress to the best of our ability, and children have less experience and shakier self-regulation. It is unreasonable for us to expect them to handle this as well as we do,” Learmonth said.
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