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December 16, 2020 Wednesday 10:42:21 AM IST

Socialise at a Distance

Parent Interventions

As we are months into the pandemic, we are all experiencing a shared issue: we feel disconnected and isolated from loved ones, friends, coworkers, et al. Even as things are slowly starting to reopen, the socializing we once knew is now a foreign concept. We all know how important connecting with others is for our well-being. The most frequently asked question: ‘How will masks, social distancing, and lack of interaction with other children affect our kids’ social and emotional development’?  The mother of a seven-month-old baby expresses her concern: “The thing that keeps me up at night is what it means that my daughter essentially has no idea other babies exist. Is she going to have problems socializing in the future?”


Socialization is the process whereby children learn to display behaviors and imbibe the beliefs and values of their social group. Simply put, through socialization 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. Young children crave attention. They learn from their peers. They thrive on interactions that help them grow.

For young children, in particular, learning how to connect with others is a vital skill for their development. Play and socialization are the ‘work’ of early childhood. During this period, children are learning how to navigate social scenarios, such as when and how to join in with others, taking turns, conversation skills, emotion regulation, frustration tolerance, emotional expression, and more. These lessons seem simple, but they are foundational to healthy social development.

Socializing whether in person or by using technology as simple as the phone -- is essential to maintain our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It satisfies our feelings of belongingness and connecting with other people. And it’s as important as our need for shelter and food.

Emerging Social Horizon

Ages 0 to 2:  Before 18 months, children haven’t started the developmental task psychologists call “theory of mind,” which is the understanding that other people have thoughts different from their own thoughts. During this period, these babies have only a limited emotional repertoire. They don’t care about other children’s emotions. Children who are that age can’t meet each other’s social needs. They only can tell people when they need something. From approximate ages 0-2, children are more interested in their toys than each other. It’s not to say that babies and toddlers don’t need interaction, but they focus more on parents and caregivers than they do on kids their own age.

Very young children tend to engage in ‘parallel play’, their interest is in playing next to other children with similar toys or activities. They do not necessarily interact as frequently or intentionally as older kids do.

Somewhere between ages 2 and 3, kids begin to notice each other -- and learn important life lessons that prepare them for difficult transitions. The interactions they have at this foundational age make it easier for them to move into pre-K or kindergarten, as they can better integrate into a group learning environment.

It is also around this age where kids begin to understand the value of friendship. It won’t be until middle or high school when peer groups become influential, helping them develop a sense of identity. But prior to kindergarten, kids show a preference for certain friends, helping them discover what traits they value most.

Ages 3-5: What children are getting from socializing with other kids in the preschool years is moral reasoning. They need to learn what is fair and what is right, and they learn that from being with their sibling and other children. Social and emotional skills go hand-in-hand. Emotional skills talk about identifying, expressing, and managing emotions while social skills are about making connections, relating to others, being able to negotiate and build relationships with peers, adults, and colleagues. During the ages of four and seven, children make a great qualitative leap in which cognitive, motor, attention, and executive processes are the keys to developing reading and writing skills.

Overcome Social Distancing

•    Parents, be positive-- 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. You likely also face social depletion and are overwhelmed with all the work and news. This dynamic environment impacted your job or business. But let’s remember, your child/children are dependent on you. You set the tone inside the house. If you are resentful, anxious, and blame other people in front of your children, they will inherit the toxic emotions. Hence, keep upbeat, and show your efforts in adapting to the changes, be positive.

•    Spend some time with children-- You don’t have to spend ALL your time with them. But make conscious blocks of time when you are truly present. Spending some time, around thirty minutes after daily work, helps. For example, read a book, doodle on paper, or watch a TV together. It is relaxing, and you can have some common topics to talk about. Give a peek at their academics. A peek means casually talking about how they are doing with their school work but not dabbling the water too much. But always check in to see where they need help.

•    Have some outdoor activities-- Some kids spend so much time in their rooms that they do not want to move their feet out of the door. As a parent, you will need to give them a nudge. Once they are outside, they are like cheerful birds flying around. . However, selecting the right place is important at this time of the pandemic.

•    Make use of tech assistance-- 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 cyber security risks as well as the parameters and expectations regarding gadget use when communicating with friends. 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.

•    Allow to Express Feelings: If your child or teen feels disappointed right now, let her express her feelings, and validate them. Share your own disappointments and how you are managing your feelings. During this time, children will be most comforted by parents’ words of reassurance that you will get through these challenging times together, and that life will return to normal eventually. Although this pandemic is not the situation that we would have chosen for our kids to face, experiencing adverse events, with their parent’s support, will help kids build resiliency. They will be able to look back on this time and reflect on how they were creative in finding ways to connect with their friends online, how they found new ways to entertain themselves at home, and how they persevered over new challenges, such as attending school online.

And, as to the question,” Will our children be stunted due to social isolation?”, experts’ opinion can be summed as follows: The majority of neuro-typical kids will be able to socialize just fine, even if we’re still wearing masks in a year. A lot of socialization happens implicitly through interactions with caregivers.  And even if there are some social setbacks in the next year or two, development is a lifelong process. There’s not a skill or domain in which children can’t get better or work at.

Dr. Jose Cletus Plackal

Licensed clinical psychologist, BET-MRT, Jeevas Centre, Aluva, Kerala.

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