Throughout the past year, children have proven themselves to be extremely resilient once again. From lockdowns to virtual schooling, many children have tried their best to make the most out of a bad situation. However, as things begin to fully reopen this summer, kids may need some help learning how to socialize again. Like adults, kids may feel a little awkward socializing and it is our job to help them re-adjust after a year of social distancing.
There is a biological reason for this perceived feeling of awkwardness according to a February 2021 BBC article. By design, humans are social creatures and scientists have identified biological changes that occur when people become socially isolated. People with small social networks often have a smaller amygdala, a part of the brain that processes emotions. Since these small social networks can often result in loneliness, the hormone levels that impact stress and social bonding can also be affected. This could eventually lead to depression if left unchecked. Memory and verbal recall can also be impacted by prolonged isolation as humans begin to feel the negative effects of a lack of interactive stimulation. (You can find the full article here). These are just some of the impacts that fully grown adults experience and most tend to bounce back relatively quickly when put back into a social environment. However, for some children, this could be a slightly different story.
The impact of COVID-19 on children’s social skills
While the impact of social isolation on adults is obviously an area of concern, the long-lasting impact on children is even more worrisome. There has been a growing concern from parents and scientists about how this social gap at such an important stage in a child’s development will negatively impact their mental and brain health long term.
In the above-mentioned BBC article, biologist Daniela Rivera from the Universidad Mayor in Santiago explained how “at this age, the brain is still developing and refining neuronal connectivity; thus it is a critical phase to develop social abilities that will define their interactions with peers.” In a December 2020 article by NPR on helping kids build resilience during the pandemic, Dr. Jessica Bartlett of Child Trends discusses how a disruption at this phase could have behavioral consequences explaining that “children’s disrupted brain development could prime them to either become over-reactive to stress and lash out more frequently, or under-reactive and withdraw from others altogether.”
For children that may have struggled in social settings prior to COVID-19, this isolation may have caused them to withdraw even more into their own “shell” and become under-reactive. In these situations, getting them to feel comfortable with others again creates some unique challenges and it is important to be cognizant that “too much, too soon” could lead to frustration and increased anxiety.
For more outgoing children, social distancing caused them to experience loneliness, boredom, and anxiety as they saw the social networks that they relied on nearly disappear. They may have lashed out as they were trying to find a way to deal with ongoing stress and this could have an impact on their relationships. This lack of social structure may have led to a decrease in overall productivity and success in school.
So what can we do as parents to help our children learn to socialize again?
With any luck, most children may have already gone through the most challenging part of the pandemic. Schools have begun to reopen or plan to at the end of the summer and as vaccinations become more and more widespread, the overall level of anxiety surrounding COVID-19 should continue to decrease.
While the needs of children are different, there are a few things that we can do for all children to help them learn to socialize again.
For many children, a return to complete normalcy including school, extracurricular activities, and social events may be very overwhelming. It is important to remember that the amount of energy that children can commit to social interaction may have dropped and they may find it different to cope with a lot of overstimulation.
Luckily, the summer break gives us the perfect chance to gradually introduce our children back to the non-virtual world. For example, play dates can be a great way to start helping kids feel comfortable with social interaction in a small group setting for a limited time period. If that proves successful, sleepovers can help increase the time that they are able to spend with other children and away from their own homes and families.
Summer enrichment camps could be the next step as children have the opportunity to spend extended periods of time with a small group of campers who have similar interests. This gives them the chance to meet other children outside of their immediate social circle and since they have a shared interest, this should make communication easier.
By taking things slowly and evaluating your child each step of the way, you and your child can feel more comfortable about their return to larger social settings in the fall.
Be a good role model
Just as kids are dealing with the stress and anxiety of being back in social settings, so are many adults. Going back to an office after spending the past year at home can be somewhat terrifying for a lot of people. It is important to be kind to ourselves throughout this transition. If you are struggling to cope with the increase in social pressure, make sure to take the time for self-care whether it be through yoga, a much-needed vacation, or simply a long walk in a park. As we all know, children notice everything, especially when their parents are stressed or unhappy. Although taking a step back may be hard, by giving yourself time to unwind and refresh, you will be in a better position to manage your own stress levels moving forward and get your kids through this difficult time period.
Join The Handwork Studio for a fun, screen-free summer!
The Handwork Studio, a fun, summer enrichment camp where kids learn by making. Since 2001, we've been the leading educators in teaching kids hands-on skills that you won't find in your school curriculum. Whether your child is interested in building, sewing, coding or design, we provide engaging activities for kids to embrace their imagination and think like innovators. Click below to find a summer camp location near you.