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The Emotional Effects of Social Distancing on Children

Updated: May 14, 2020

Humans are social by nature, and children in particular learn from interacting with others. While children definitely benefit from the leadership, guidance and direction of adults, they learn social cues from peers. Very young children learn best through play, and the most effective form of play is unstructured and peer-integrated. Other children stimulate curiosity and imagination, which helps them grow more confident in their interactions with the world. Additionally, children are likely to take the mild risks necessary for growth when they are around other children. For instance, a child may have no interest in riding a bike until they see how much fun their neighbor friends are having bike riding.

As quarantine and social distancing requirements continue during the COVID-19 pandemic, children can be particularly hard-hit in ways that adults may not notice. The children who do not have siblings at home or have siblings who are not close in age are particularly at risk of effects related to isolation from peers. Moodiness, lack of motivation, self-regulation issues, boredom, and changes in behavior can be side effects of too much social isolation.

So what can parents do to counteract theses effects? First, find ways that your kids can stay in contact with their peers. This can be through video calls, texts, phone calls or good old-fashioned pen-pal mail. Another thing for parents to remember is that engaging with their children in active play is important for their social and emotional growth. Even though there is adult work to do, set aside time for family fun and playtime. Get on their level, even if playing Barbies or Legos isn't your favorite thing. Tapping into childhood imagination is likely good for the adults too!

Next, give you kids some structure through a schedule. This does not mean organize their entire day, but rather have time periods for specific activities, like outdoor/backyard play. If you find creative materials or stimulating toys, set them aside and dole them out over time. This helps keep activities new and fresh while stimulating the imagination. Also, look for collaborative activities online. There are spaces where children can participate in a creative activity at home then upload to a shared forum.

Don't forget exercise! Even if your kids are in a small apartment or home, it's important for all of our physical and emotional health to stay active. There are plenty of kid-friendly fitness videos, yoga, etc. online as a resource, or just go for a family jog, if it's permitted in your area.

Finally, make sure that you are regularly sharing and talking about feelings at home. Adults should role model how to put their feelings into words and share them with others. We are all experiencing boredom, frustration, loneliness and other feelings that kids may not know how to label. Talk about ways you can address these feelings as a family. By validating our shared feelings and experiences, we can give each other the support we need at home until we are back into our larger social support networks.

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