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Yes, social distancing can be a problem for kids. But maybe not how you think.

Messaging matters. And social distancing is a significant messaging challenge. Health professionals and advocates, including our infectious disease specialists, have been fighting a tough battle with the term “social distancing” since early in the onset of this pandemic. We understand that this means stay home as much as possible, stay 6 feet apart, wear masks, wash hands, avoid unnecessary outings, especially indoors. This is actually physical distancing, and it is crucial.

Social distancing or physical distancing?
It may be more than just semantics!

Just as crucial for our health is social interaction. All of us, at all ages, need to connect. But in all of this social distance talk, in our serious joking about zoom exhaustion and introverts living their best lives, many of us started to wall off. And this leads to a different type of health crisis: the isolation that underscores so many mental health issues. Instead, we need to both be physically apart as much as possible and stay socially together.

What does this mean for my kids?
Socializing is the ultimate multi-tasking tool of learning for children. Yes, they learn how to make friends, but socializing also teaches communication skills, empathy, conflict management, and self-awareness of emotions. Kids need each other too.

Not all connection is created equal, and that’s been especially important as we distance. Hearing the voices and seeing the faces of the people we care about releases all the feel-good hormones that keep us going. Texting and messaging does not. When you’re thinking about how to help your kids (and yourself) connect—hearing loved ones’ voices beats messaging, seeing faces is even better, and being physically present when possible is best.

How can I help my kids socially connect?
Children are incredibly resilient, and the good news is that trying any of these things, or creative ideas of your own, will be helpful. Release yourself from the pressure of having things look like they did before.

  • Phone calls—Time to go old-school. Teach your children the art of a good old-fashioned phone call to other relatives and friends. Remember, verbal communication has multiple benefits. It also particularly helps young children with their sense of permanency. I may not still see my friend, but they are still there and are ok. Short-lived, awkward phone calls still achieve all of these things and are absolutely a success.
  • Virtual play dates-—Again, these will probably be short and unstructured, and that’s ok! Just seeing each other can be reassuring. Prompts for show-and-tells, mutual puppet shows, playing with backgrounds, or sharing on-screen drawings work well in this format.
  • Virtual camps and activities—Most activities have transitioned to a virtual format, and the best ones for this purpose involve actual interaction with other kids. Dance classes, theater groups, yoga, scouts, and 4-H, everything that possibly can go virtual is offering something. As much as possible, keep these activities going for your children.
  • Outdoor play—Get up and moving outside as much as possible. Being out and about in public spaces and seeing other people while following COVID-19 safety guidelines is good for everyone. It helps remind children that the world around them still exists. If you can build in safe play opportunities with friends, even better. Masked and outdoors remains our safest interactions.
  • “Pod” play—The newest of our coronavirus buzz words, this strange-sounding term refers to restricting interactions to a social group of fewer than ten people. We spend time with those people, who we trust with healthy decision making, and still limit physical social time with others. When my friends’ children have a chance to play outside with their best friends, the kids next door, that is a pod in beautiful action. They’re just kids again, having a moment that looks like a typical summer.

In whatever way you can, find those ways to get your kids socially connected while physically distanced. Every little bit matters and makes a difference. And while you are at it, parents, please remember to give yourselves some grace. You are facing parenting decisions not seen in our modern times. And while every family’s approach may look different, we are all doing the best we can and doing what is right for our children.

Stay safe and keep connecting.

Special thanks to Rebecca Kline Toy, KidsTLC Clinical Director of Psychiatric Residential Programming, for this article