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How can I help my child redevelop social skills after the pandemic?

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As COVID-19 restrictions begin to lift following the winter wave of the Omicron variant, parents are faced with the task of easing their child back into pre-pandemic socialization skills. Some children have been fortunate to have been in school most of this past year—which has likely helped with social skills and development—but there are still many students nationwide who have been faced with numerous quarantines, school shut-downs and even illness. Beyond school disruptions, many families have also opted out of different extracurriculars for their children, including playdates, birthday parties, playground time and more, throughout the course of the past two years. While a child’s health and safety is always the top priority, most experts agree that all of these missed social interactions have caused a lapse in children’s ability to socialize in an in-person group setting. 

Why is socialization so important for children?

Social development is critical for children of all ages and impacts almost every other aspect of overall development. The process of learning how to interact with others spurs on serious brain growth! When children socialize in a group setting they are working on a number of different skills at all once. Empathy, negotiation, sharing, recognition of social cues and norms, and so much more can be learned and practiced at something as simple as a morning playdate with a friend.  Socialization helps children establish a sense of self and builds their confidence, it teaches respect and good manners, and provides exposure to new words and ideas which can further a child in cognitive and literacy development. Children who are exposed to regular socialization often show less signs of childhood anxiety and even perform better in school. 

How do I know if my child is struggling when it comes to socialization?

For many parents and caregivers, it’s not difficult to spot when their child is struggling in a social setting. Parents should watch to see if their child seems shy or anxious around other children; shows emotional upset before, during, or after a social engagement; or appears to have trouble fitting in. Parents should also take note as to whether these are new behaviors for their child. Any sudden change in children’s behavior when it comes to socializing is something to explore. It may be harder to spot socialization problems in older children and teens, simply because they spend more time away from their parents during the day. Make a point to talk to your child regularly about what is happening at school—Is any bullying occurring?  Are you struggling with your friendships or struggling to make friends? If a child won’t engage with parents about their day, the school guidance counselor or trusted teacher is another way to keep tabs on what is happening. Whatever the cause for concern may be, it’s important to find out where and why your child is struggling before signing them up for a long list of social activities. 

What can parents do to help their child after a period of social isolation?

How parents and caregivers can help their child after an extended break from regular socializing largely depends on the age and developmental stage of their child. How you socialize an infant or toddler is different than how school-aged children or teens interact, but here are a few general tips to keep in mind:

  • Find out what is going on with your child. Before diving head first into birthday parties and after school activities, make sure you have taken a look at where your child may be struggling. Identifying the biggest points of concern will help you set the right pace for re-socialization. For example: Are they nervous aboutwho they will sit with at lunch? Are they having a hard time remembering their manners? Are they worried about germs and getting sick? Figuring out their specific issues can help parents focus on their child’s challenges. 
  • Reestablish pre-pandemic routines. All children thrive when they follow a predictable home and school routine. Before social life picks back up to full speed, begin a return-to-pre-pandemic routineto ease the adjustment. This may come in the form of a family dinner at the same time every night or the act of getting up and getting dressed each morning. Routine change can be hard for many children so easing back into it gently andsooner, rather than later, can help your child cope with any anxiety or worry they may be having. 
  • Go slowly and let your child set the pace. While there will be children who are ready to jump back into socializing feet first, there will be many others who need to take baby steps into the pool. The goal in easing children back into socialization should be to help them find their pre-pandemic social confidence, and in many cases rushing this process can cause more harm than good. Continue to nudge your child along and encourage them to move outside their comfort zone but take into consideration the pace may be slow and steady—and that’s okay! 
  • Gently remind them about social expectations. Older children and teens may not struggle as much with remembering pre-pandemic social “rules” and manners, but parents may find their younger children struggling hard to take turns, use “please” and “thank you,”and make eye contact, among other things. Use every social interaction as an opportunity to remind them of acceptable social behavior and offer positive encouragement when they manage to get things right on their own. Gentle guidance works best in these arenas, as the goal is to build self-confidence and create positive associations with socializing in a group.  
  • Remember that all children are unique. While most experts agree that children’s social skills will rebound after nearly two years of social disruptions, the pace at which they do so will likely vary. Coping strategies will also vary from child to child so parents should always take into consideration the personality, temperament and needs of their child and try not to compare their child with someone else’s. 

Recognizing signs that your child might be struggling and helping them regain their pre-pandemic social skills is going to be a part of life for many parents and caregivers in a post-COVID-19 world. But while there may be some catching up to do when it comes to school, sports and parties, your child will likely bounce back into the swing of things before too long. More information on childhood socialization can be found at www.healthychildren.org


By ABC Quality Team on June 7, 2022