Will social distance affect my child's development?

Parent's hand helping child

September 4, 2020

In a child’s early years, the brain develops through imitation and socialization. Kids use person-to-person interactions to pick up social cues from peers, build attachment to loving adults, and establish routines. With the Coronavirus pandemic and shelter-in-place orders, a lot of parents are worried about how being away from peers will affect their kids socially, emotionally and developmentally.

Social isolation in early childhood can indeed affect a child’s growth and development. In fact, children deprived of social relationships can experience cognitive and speech delays, as well as physical and mental health concerns in adulthood.

Social Distance Does Not Mean Social Isolation

It’s important to note that physical distancing does not mean social isolation. Social isolation is the lack of social contact and reliable relationships due to being kept physically or emotionally distant. During this pandemic, we are experiencing connections in a different way. But it does take effort to keep social interactions strong and viable. As the pandemic continues on, parents need to provide their children with stimulating, safe experiences to support their child’s development.

"You have to get creative! Parents can continue to build social relationships even in a virtual world. It is possible and it is worthwhile," says Cynthia Quinones, Any Baby Can's Early Childhood Intervention Deputy Director.

Ideas to Encourage Social Development of Children

Socializing can be done at home and through the computer. If your child is enrolled in a virtual school, he or she will benefit from seeing peers, interacting with a teacher, and being exposed to age-appropriate learning. If not, you can create activities and routines that help motivate the child to learn and explore the world around them.

These activities can encourage physical, cognitive and social development:

  • Connect your child with a pen pal and write/draw letters. Not only does this encourage practical fine motor skills, it can help maintain or build relationships and is a great exercise even for older kids.
  • Play dress up and take on imaginative roles.
  • Put on a puppet show to encourage two-way conversation. You can even make simple sock puppets if you don’t have any at home.
  • Play pretend school or restaurant, with the parent asking questions to the child and widening the child’s vocabulary.
  • Read books and point out things you see in the pictures.
  • Explore nature, which provides many sensory experiences and gets everyone out of the house.
  • Create theme days such as beach vacation (play with sand in the yard) or cooking day (bake something together).

The goal is to expose your child to different situations and experiences—safely! —by mimicking real life interactions.

Peer interaction is also important and can be done through the phone or computer. If you have friends or family members who can do a phone or video call, ask them to spend time talking with your child. Seeing new faces, reactions, expressions and speech will help your child’s development.

Virtual learning (virtual circle time, or telehealth therapy, or any other virtual child-focused activity) provides structure and routine—in addition to the educational and social opportunities—all of which are still valuable to a child’s development. YouTube offers high-quality, free story time and free kids yoga and games that you can add to your day to provide structure.

From a mental health standpoint, loss of routine and movement throughout the day is a real challenge – for children and parents alike. Creating and maintaining predictable transitions and time blocks for certain activities provides a sense of safety and order.

Any Baby Can is also continuing to look at opportunities outside of scheduled telehealth visits to connect families with other families virtually.

Let’s Talk About Screen Time

Some parents may be feeling tension between excessive screen time and balancing social opportunities online. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests limiting screen time in the following ways:

For children younger than 18 months, use of screen media other than video-chatting should be discouraged.

Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming/apps and use them together with children, because this is how toddlers learn best. Letting children use media by themselves should be avoided.

For children older than 2 years, media limits are very appropriate. Limit screen use to no more than 1 hour or less per day of high-quality programming. Co-view or co-play with your children, and find other activities for to do together that are healthy for the body and mind (e.g., reading, teaching, talking, and playing together).

Everything needs to be in moderation, balancing virtual time with direct parent-child connection. These guidelines provide some ideas for making the most of screen time. It does take parental involvement, such as asking the child to point and interact during a show or movie, or connecting what you see with real-life experiences. But the benefits of social engagement and two-way communication—even if it’s through a screen—are valuable and important for your child’s development.

Growth for the Child, and for the Family

All of this takes added effort from the entire family. Being resilient means accepting where you are in the current situation, and being creative with what you do with it. Most kids are naturally resilient and adaptable; they will grow and thrive in a nurturing environment, even if it looks different. Parents need to start with self-compassion and remember that it’s okay to ask for help or have off days.

"We as parents need to accept feelings, not negate them. The feeling you or your child has right now will pass. It is incredibly helpful for our kids' development to see us model emotion regulation and resiliency," says Theresa Jenkins, Bilingual Lead Clinical Therapist in Any Baby Can's No Estás Solo counseling program.

We will all come out of this situation changed. We can, however, influence what that looks like for our family, and find opportunities to further build the parent-child bond. Kids look to their caretakers for a sense of safety and well-being, and if nothing else, parents should serve a steady and stabilizing role.

Do you have questions about how your child is developing? Our team can help you assess if your child could benefit from and qualify for Early Childhood Intervention services. For parents, couples and children seeking emotional support, we provide counseling and virtual support groups.

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