Q: We have been pretty strict about social distancing. Will not seeing friends or family for a few months have a long-term effect on my children? Outside of FaceTime and Zoom, should we find ways to incorporate visits into our schedule?
Yours is a question about which many (most?) parents are concerned as the critical social distancing has dragged on through summer. How I wish I or anyone could definitively say what the effects of social distancing, distance learning, virtual playdates will have on our children going forward.
As a developmentalist, my greatest concern for our children is not a disruption in their cognitive development, their academic school learning. We will get a handle on this pandemic sooner or later, and our children will be back learning in school. More importantly, children learn and grow cognitively wherever they are. I am talking about our children’s social and emotional development.
You did not mention the age of your children. It is important because we know that different age children are affected differently, based just on typical child development.
Children tend to be adaptable and resilient. Children (humans) are biologically wired to adapt. Dr. Jack Shonkoff at Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child says, “If we weren’t, we would have gone extinct like the dinosaurs. We wouldn’t be able to survive because the environment is always changing.”
Children grow up in all kinds of situations—from nuclear families to communes; with just parents to only constant care givers—with each of which they manage to adapt, learn and grow.
What we do know is that our younger children will be affected differently than our teens. Social deprivation is a different experience for a 7-year-old than it is for a 17-year-old.
The skills that are critical for young children to acquire include becoming self-reliant, coping with challenges, becoming emotionally literate, empathizing with others and taking responsibility for their actions. While these are best learned out in the social world, all can be developed in a distanced home environment, too.
For our younger kids, there is great value in the relationships they have at home with siblings or even pets. In families with more than one child, siblings help one another with many aspects of social living—turn taking, waiting, negotiating, resolving conflicts (or not!). Even pets can teach empathy, perspective taking and responsibility. Lots of learning can happen at home for young children.
For older kids it’s a whole different story. We know that the developmental task of middle schoolers and teens is identity formation and forging friendships. This age group could be the hardest hit as they are supposed to be separating from their parents … not hanging out with them at home.
In addition to development, this complicated, layered, frustrating time in all our lives will affect each of us differently because each one of us is different emotionally. Each of us has a different capacity for dealing with frustration and for getting our social needs met. Each of us has a different temperament, so our responses to social deprivation will be different.
Children who have social anxiety or who were dealing with bullying at school might find the social distancing a relief. Those with a not-so-happy homelife might suffer from being out of school or camp.
It is known that secure attachments with parents set up children of all ages to have stronger friendships, whether virtual or in person. You need to have fun together, enjoy together, laugh together. These experiences have tremendous power—not only for healing but for building immunity and tolerance.
Some professionals have pointed out that parents who are excessively worried about what their children are missing, who are frantically trying to replace the missing pieces, may be doing more damage than the missing out could cause. To reduce the tension the children will absorb, parents need to stop catastrophizing and let go of the anxiety. There is value to what the children are getting at home. For some it is plain old fun; for others it is time to do whatever, including daydreaming.
Studies have shown that children of all ages don’t need swarms of friends or specific kinds of interactions in order to grow and survive socially. In fact, it has been found that having just one good friend can help children socially and emotionally.
While I cannot say how or if your children will be affected, I can say that now is the time to be resourceful. The need for socializing remains. Not only do I suggest brainstorming with your older children about how they might safely socialize, but do your research.
Ask your friends; check out Nextdoor; look at different Facebook social groups; use Google for ideas for socially distant experiences. But do not compromise your beliefs. Just because someone else thinks something is safe, doesn’t mean it is safe for you. And remember a little experience with a child will go a long way.
While socializing with peers and others is essential to development, in these strange times, we have to do the best we can do. Now let’s all cross our fingers for light at the end of the tunnel. This strange time is not forever; it is for now.
BBB is a child development and behavior specialist in Pacific Palisades. She can be reached through betsybrownbraun.com.
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