The impact of physical distancing on young children

Socializing with peers is an important part of a young child’s development. In addition to the friendships they build, toddlers and young children develop communication skills, emotional self-awareness, empathy and conflict management through their interactions with others their age.

The coronavirus crisis has led to many families staying home with little to no social interaction. Physical distancing is crucial during this time, but while parents have the ability to organize webcam and phone calls with friends and family, young children don’t yet have the social or technological skills to adapt to social distance.

Alison Steier, Ph.D., director of Mental Health Services and the Harris Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Training Institute at Southwest Human Development, has two primary recommendations for parents of young children.

First, parents can help their children use alternative options for social interaction. While they can’t have playdates for now, they can visit on the phone or on the computer and see what their friends are up to.

“These types of interactions show the distinction between physical distancing, which we must do, and social distancing,” Dr. Steier says. “Even though children can’t be together in their usual environments, they can still socialize. Human beings are social creatures. We and our children should be as social as possible and stay emotionally connected to others.”

Some connection, through an online platform or the telephone, can support young children’s relationships with absent friends and family—even when their attention spans are short. A 2-year-old who persistently asks about a school friend but then is reluctant to come to the phone or to stay for more than a moment on a video call still benefit from knowing that their friend is there—at home, just like they are. Pictures and conversations about missed family and friends are also helpful, as are stories with details about what people in their lives are doing. Parents can try starting these conversations by saying, “I bet your friend, Jake, is brushing his teeth right now, just like you. Then he’ll get in bed and his dad will read him a story, just like you. Then what do you think he will he do?”

Second, the impact of not seeing friends or participating in child care or preschool is likely to be different for every child, depending on their temperament, their circumstances prior to the restrictions on physical contact and how staying at home affects the stress level and management of stress in their family. Some young children who were struggling prior to COVID-19 are likely to show us they’re upset through their behavior (e.g. high-activity levels or withdrawals, setbacks in toilet training or other recently-acquired skills, problems sleeping). Extra attention and patience from parents is helpful, and consultation from a counselor or child development specialist may be useful.

Other children, who were not struggling in any significant way prior to COVID-19, may display similar behavioral challenges, showing us their sensitivity to the big changes in their lives. Extra attention and patience from parents is helpful here, too, but there is no need to worry that the loss of peer interaction from child care or playgroup experiences will have any lasting negative effect on their social development. While older children and adolescents have developed a more complex social network with friends, the world of toddlers and preschoolers is still centered primarily on their family. Additional time with parents and siblings in pretend play or walks outside will be a gift for young children.

There are also many opportunities for parents and older siblings to help young children practice social and emotional skills that they would be working on if they were able to be with other children such as:

  • Taking turns in games.
  • Learning about their feelings by attaching words to behavior (“I can see it made you very mad when I said ‘No’ to turning the lights on and off”).
  • Developing empathy by responding to their emotions in caring ways.
  • Helping them feel more competent and accomplished through learning a new skill or by doing something for someone else such as “drawing” a picture for a friend.

These ideas are not meant to add pressure to the already increased stress parents are experiencing. They are things that can be worked into the natural course of a day to promote social and emotional development.

“We can expect that young children’s development will proceed, even under these adverse circumstances,” Dr. Steier says. “They—like all of us—will happily return to the social world outside our homes when the time is right.”

For parents, caregivers and professionals who are concerned about or would like to talk about their at-home experiences with young children, Southwest Human Development’s Birth to Five Helpline is available to help by calling or texting 877-705-KIDS (5437). Early childhood experts are available Mondays through Fridays from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

All content in this article, including any advice or commentary from Southwest Human Development staff and/or others, should be considered an opinion and is provided for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for medical or other professional advice, diagnosis or treatment.  Always seek the direct advice of your own trusted professional with any questions or concerns you may have regarding the child/ren in your care.  Southwest Human Development does not recommend or endorse any specific tests, products, procedures or other information that may be mentioned in this article.  You may contact Southwest Human Development’s Birth to Five Helpline at 1-877-705-KIDS (5437) to speak with one of our early childhood professionals for personalized assistance.  Birth to Five Helpline specialists are available Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.