Broad sections of society are likely to feel the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic for years to come. However, one of the most concerning areas for parents is its effect on our children’s mental health. Mental health and, in particular, socialization are two of the main issues both parents and experts have when considering children and COVID-19. But how big are these issues? Are there steps parents and caretakers can take to assist in the socialization of children?
Mental health will likely always feature prominently in our concerns about children’s wellbeing, but perhaps no more than now. This article will examine why socialization matters in children, some of the problems associated with a lack of socialization, and steps parents and carers can take while children are at home to ensure their mental well-being.
Why Socialization for Children Matters
In 2015, the American Journal of Public Health published a study carried out over 20 years by researchers from Duke and Pennsylvania Universities.
In it, 800 kindergarten-age children in four locations had their social competency skills measured by their teachers. Included in the analysis were the children’s behaviors, including their ability to solve peer-related issues, listen to others, and cooperate.
Following this, researchers awarded the children a composite score based on their level of social skills and behavior from 0 “not at all” to 4 “very well.”
Researchers monitored the students over the following two decades until they reached the age of 25, with positive and negative milestones assessed. These ranged from obtaining high-school diplomas and finding full-time work to substance abuse and gaining a criminal record.
Statistics on Lack of Socialization
The findings of that study were surprising and alarming. Every increase of a point in those social competency scores led to the child being twice as likely to gain a degree in early adulthood. Those children were also 54% more likely to earn a high-school diploma, while the chances of having full-time work aged 25 were 46% higher.
On the other hand, each decrease of a point led to a 64% higher chance of spending time in juvenile detention and a 67% higher likelihood of being arrested in early adulthood. Meanwhile, those students also had a far greater chance of resorting to substance abuse, binge drinking, and ending up on waiting lists for social housing.
In other words, the level of socialization in children plays a vital role in a person’s life chances – and health – when they reach adulthood.
Children and COVID-19
Fast forward to 2020, and COVID-19 is causing widespread school, kindergarten, and daycare closures to contain the outbreak.
Meanwhile, children’s opportunities to socialize with their peers are being severely compromised, with restrictions on meeting people outside of immediate family among the limitations imposed at various points.
How Children Become Socialized
How are these profound and sudden changes impacting the development of our children’s socialization?
Socialization begins when a baby is born and continues into adulthood. Still, it is particularly critical in a child’s formative years. For example, we may consider a visit to a playground as little more than an opportunity to let our children release some energy and get some exercise. However, it plays an essential role in ensuring that a child learns how to deal with conflict, manage stress, and work as part of a group.
Similarly, other social environments, including participation in sports and children’s parties, offer them ways to learn what is – and isn’t – acceptable in society and regulate themselves within it.
The Effects of COVID-19
It is too soon to know in precisely what ways the pandemic will impact children’s socialization. Indeed, one study, being conducted by the University of Maryland, is still in the process of gathering data from 100-150 families to determine the impact of it on the socialization of 3.5-7 year-olds.
However, another survey carried out early in the outbreak found that mental health had worsened in almost two-thirds of children. Nevertheless, some experts think that a few months of social distancing won’t significantly impact young children in the long-term.
It’s not as straightforward with adolescent children, though. Mental health can suffer in teenagers when they find it harder to replicate their face-to-face friendships via screen time. So, we need to consider alternative ways to help them adjust. This includes offering them support, understanding, and engaging in positive communication with them.
Ways Parents Can Help Children Cope
There are practical and creative ways we can manage children and COVID-19 while assisting in their socialization, both with – and without – technology.
According to child psychologist Dr. Mary Alvord, children as young as a year old can recognize faces and smiles. Therefore, a video call with loved ones offers an excellent way to replace meeting face to face for younger children. Meanwhile, online games with friends provide children with an opportunity to learn about taking turns and sharing.
For older children, the Houseparty app combines the two, helping them connect with friends and family and play games together. The Caribu app offers a similar function for younger children.
Mental health issues in children can also manifest as anxiety. To that end, the Marco Polo app takes away the pressure of talking live by allowing users to leave a video message that the recipient can respond to later.
One thing most children thrive on is a routine, according to Toronto-based child life specialist Carol Irwin. When applying that to children and COVID-19, she suggests implementing a series of daily rituals into their lives, including craft-based activities, free play, and bedtime stories.
Elsewhere, Dr. Jennifer Wojciechowski, a clinical child psychologist based at San Diego’s Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital, has offered other words of reassurance on the subjects of children, mental health and their socialization,
She points out that children are malleable and resilient and suggests that parents and caretakers have a role to play by finding ways to improve each day with their children. We can maintain robust mental health in our children by remaining positive and engaging in regular communication with them. Also encouraged is recognizing and labeling emotions.
Finally, she suggests that elements of our “new normal,” such as wearing face masks, could meet with resistance from children returning to pre-school. However, they are likely to adjust quickly as the return to structure and predictability will ultimately help them.
For those who are keeping their children at home, it may also be possible to bubble with a family whose child is a friend of yours. This, of course, will depend on the restrictions in place at the time.
Room for Positivity about Children’s Mental Health
The pandemic has understandably led parents and caretakers of children to develop concerns about whether the lack of interaction with peers will negatively affect socialization. Meanwhile, the lack of opportunities to attend social events has given rise to similar anxieties.
There are obvious conflicts between the proper socialization of children and COVID-19. Nevertheless, by introducing routine, maintaining good communication, and with creative use of the technology we have, the message is clear: there are many ways we can help the socialization of our children.
Mental health issues, of course, can develop in children at any point, and we need to remain vigilant. However, we can play a crucial role in allowing them to thrive in unprecedented times such as these and in the future.
A Note from GR8NESS