The rapid spread of COVID-19 has led to a number of precautionary measures across the world, including quarantines, social distancing, and in some cases, total lockdown in regions or countries. Many parents are left wondering if months of lack of structured schooling, isolation, and the potential loss of loved ones will have long-lasting mental implications for their children. Experts are worried that our current situation will have great consequences for their social development.
"Children certainly are being impacted by this because it's changed their worlds," Robin Gurwitch, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Duke University Medical Center, said.
Impact on Kids’ Long-Term Social Development
Social development is important for kids as they learn the basics of being social beings. While their parents and siblings can provide most of the input they need, it’s still significant for young people to learn to navigate complex social groups of peers. For kids in late childhood, this is the time when they are usually figuring out how to form friendships with deeper roots than just proximity and play. While this seems hard for them to navigate, they are also crucial stepping stones to healthy adult relationships later in life.
“They do this by experimenting. They are in the process of figuring out who they are and what they want from their friends. This is why those friendships in middle school particularly can be fragile and most kids experience some isolation and heartbreak,” Amy Learmonth, a developmental psychologist, said.
Many parents and experts are worried that the absence of social relationships during this pandemic can affect child development in various ways. Previous research, for instance, has revealed that socially isolated children tend to be part of a less advantaged social class in adulthood and lower subsequent educational attainment, and are more likely to be psychologically distressed in adulthood. Experts, however, clarified that the impacts are different between short-term and long-term isolation.
According to Healthline, an American website and provider of health information, children will bounce back just fine if isolation lasts just for a few months. “This generation of teenagers have been virtually socializing with their friends their whole lives. They are used to connecting through their devices and online, so that part of social distancing will likely be easier on them than the rest of us,” Cameron Caswell, a developmental psychologist and family coach, said.
Some children may even enjoy this isolation as they adapt to the new social rules. Parents can take this as an opportunity to slow down, reconnect, reset their sleep schedules, and breathe. “I would not expect any major disruptions or lasting impacts of a couple of months of social distancing,” Learmonth said.
However, the negative impacts on children’s social development would start to manifest when they experience a longer-term period of social isolation. Dr. Barbara Nosal, Ph.D., LMFT, LADC, chief clinical officer at Newport Academy, said that when a child is deprived of the opportunity to build these skills, it can potentially delay their socio-emotional development. The impact, however, is different for each age group. For instance, children who are in preschool may find it harder to develop social skills such as peer interactions, problem-solving, and behavioral expectations.
According to VeryWell Family, a modern resource that offers a realistic and friendly approach to pregnancy and parenting, tweens and teens need social interaction to mature. Without social events where they can interact or socialize with other people, they can experience symptoms of depression and anxiety, that unless addressed, can affect their long-term functioning. “Teens consider social events, such as proms, team sports, and graduations, as a reflection of their sense of self, and when these are not available, along with canceled school classes, they may struggle to adjust to a different type of social life,” Nosal explained.
Isolation can also impact a child’s human stress response. When our stress response is active, our brain releases multiple stress hormones to protect the body from danger, which is needed to react towards the current stress factor and resist the possible harm. In times like this, our body perceives the situation as a threat, thus, releasing more and more stress hormones. However, having an active stress response over an extended period is harmful.
According to NoIsolation.com, a Norwegian startup that aims to reduce involuntary loneliness and social isolation, previous studies show that it can increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, elevated blood pressure, infectious illness, cognitive deterioration, and mortality. By receiving social assistance, studies show that children can cope more easily with high levels of stress. It can help kids deal with stressful situations and prevent the potential harm of physiological illness, cognitive impairment, and feelings of loneliness. Without these, a child’s development might be put at risk.
How Parents Can Help
Jennifer Johnston-Jones, Ph.D., a California-based psychologist and author of “Transformational Parenting,” said that a parent’s parenting style during this pandemic is important. "The long-term mental health effects on children from the pandemic will vary. How we choose to parent during the pandemic will determine if our children come out of this traumatized, or able to sense that they will be OK," she said.
Parents need to create a safe space where their children will not feel isolated. They can encourage them to communicate with their friends as they crave social interaction. To make sure that they are protected, experts suggest becoming familiar with the apps they are using. Help them set necessary safety parameters as well as let them know you’ll be asking them to show you what they’ve been doing online from time to time.
“Always be transparent about what you do so they learn from it rather than rebel and circumvent your restrictions,” Caswell said. Parents could also give them many options to spend their time such as giving them chores, playing with them, or hosting fun activities at home. They should also be proactive in asking them how they're feeling, listen when they express their feelings, and validate those thoughts. It would be helpful to acknowledge those thoughts and emotions and also reassure your kids that your family is handling it together, as a team.
Ultimately, support your children’s needs as much as possible and don’t expect that they can handle this situation well. “We are all dealing with the uncertainty and stress to the best of our ability, and children have less experience and shakier self-regulation. It is unreasonable for us to expect them to handle this as well as we do,” Learmonth said.