Young children crave attention. They learn from their peers. They thrive on interactions that help them grow. So what happens when a pandemic puts socialization on the back burner? In short, they adapt — but the long-term impact is still unknown.
According to Dr. Jennifer Wojciechowski, a clinical child psychologist at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital, everyone needs social interaction to stay mentally strong. But 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,” Dr. Wojciechowski says. “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.”
When socialization matters
From approximately 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,’” Dr. Wojciechowski says. “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 friendships. 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.
The impact of lost socialization
No one truly knows how the COVID-19 pandemic and the lost socialization opportunities will affect kids. But Dr. Wojciechowski does have some reassuring words for parents: kids are malleable and resilient.
For parents who choose to keep their young children home, they are providing a sense of socialization within the family unit. And for parents who choose to send their children to an operational preschool, even the heavy precautions and separations are something kids can adapt to.
“Returning to preschool can help kids regain normalcy, structure and predictability,” she says. “Even with precautions in place, like masks and separated play stations, kids will adjust. They may resist the changes initially, but with ongoing adult support and reminders, they will get used to their new normal.”
Dr. Wojciechowski also points out that families often have different interpretations of safety recommendations related to COVID-19, and children notice these discrepancies. They may feel confused or anxious about what they are permitted and not permitted to do when engaging with other children. Additionally, young children have less awareness of personal space and boundaries, and tend to play and interact very close to others. This may cause some parents to limit all social interactions, or show a personal sense of anxiety when interactions happen.
Technology, such as video chat and developmentally appropriate apps, provides some socialization opportunities for young children; however, there are several limitations. “Young children have less experience with technology than older children, especially with video-based communication apps,” Dr. Wojciechowski says. “These platforms make it more difficult to pick up on subtle social cues. Kids are often overwhelmed or overstimulated by several people talking at the same time.” While it can be fun for kids to see familiar faces on screen, they lack the skills to fully navigate this new form of social communication.
How parents can help
In this strange and uncertain time, most parents are doing their best to get by. On the one hand, they have their own confusion and isolation to contend with. On the other, they are working diligently to create an environment with the most positive impact on their kids. It isn’t easy.
But according to Dr. Wojciechowski, worrying too much about the long-term effects of isolation on kids could add to the problem.
“Worrying may not be the best use of our time at the moment,” she says. “Instead, parents should try to focus on how to improve each day for yourself and your children, and how to find joy in these small moments together.”
The key, she believes, is to stay positive and keep the conversation going. Good communication can mean the difference between a child seeing the silver lining or slipping into a state of fear.
“Parents can engage their children in developmentally appropriate conversations and explanations,” she says. “This includes providing general information about the virus, explaining safety recommendations, recognizing and labeling emotions, and helping kids understand how to cope. The road ahead often feels daunting for parents, but if we commit to making each day better, the cumulative effects of the pandemic will surely be less dramatic.”