How to Help Kids Socialize as COVID-19 Restrictions Ease

A pediatric psychologist shares tips for nervous parents
mother having serious conversation with son at kitchen table

The kids are all right — or they will be anyway.

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Throughout the pandemic, parents have worried about what all this lack of socialization could be doing to kids’ development. As vaccine rollouts continue, it’s time to think about reacclimating kids to the wide world of in-person togetherness. But how?

Pediatric psychologist Kate Eshleman, PsyD, shares tips for parents to bear in mind both before and during the transition from Zoom breakout rooms to playground hangs.

Temper your expectations

First and foremost, don’t expect everything to go perfectly. “It’s important to have realistic expectations and recognize upfront that this is going to be hard — and that’s OK,” Dr. Eshleman says.

As kids start socializing beyond their families, some unsureness is to be expected. After all, it’s been a while since kids, like the rest of us, had to interact with other people, and some of their people skills may be rusty.

“Kids haven’t had to share with others, and they haven’t had to talk to unfamiliar adults,” Dr. Eshleman says, “so you may see some shyness or kids responding to other people in ways that aren’t typical of how they act around their families.”

While not all children will experience difficulty transitioning back to in-person gatherings, some may. And those experiences may vary greatly from child to child.

Watch for signs of stress and distress

Keep an eye out for any changes in your kids’ behavior and mood, including mood swings and sleeplessness — but perhaps just as importantly, try not to jump to conclusions about what they mean.

“As parents watch for changes in behaviors, we also have to careful how we interpret them,” Dr. Eshleman says.

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If your child returns to school, for example, and comes home with a full lunchbox every day, you might be inclined to jump to the conclusion that she’s too stressed to eat — when in reality, she’s having so much fun catching up with friends at the lunch table that food hasn’t been her top priority. Similarly, a child who’s having trouble sleeping could just as easily be kept awake by back-to-school excitement as he is by nerves and fright.

“It’s a good rule of thumb for anybody: Never assume we know what’s going on,” Dr. Eshleman says.

To try to get to the bottom of how your kids are feeling, open the lines of communication — and start now, before they head back to the classroom or return to socializing on a regular basis.

Ask probing questions

Dr. Eshleman recommends getting in the habit of asking your kids questions that will help them better express what’s going on in their lives and how they’re feeling — even if they don’t realize that’s what you’re asking.

Even before kids begin in-person socializing again, ask questions about their day, such as, “How did your book end?” and “What did you build in Minecraft today?” to get them to open up to you in unexpected ways.

“I can’t emphasize enough the importance of creating opportunities for conversations and making a point of asking a child how their day was,” Dr. Eshleman says. “We want to ask hidden pointed questions, like, ‘Did anything funny happen today?’ and ‘What made you happy today? What made you angry?’”

Other ways to prepare kids’ people skills

Dr. Eshleman suggests other ways to prepare children for changes to come and increase their comfort with socializing in person.

  • Start small: “Identify opportunities for limited exposure,” she says. Whether it’s heading to the park or going out for ice cream as a family, ease kids into social situations in which they’ll be around new people and in new settings.
  • Brainstorm conversation starters: Along with your child, come up with a handful of topics they can ask their friends about in person. Arming them with age-appropriate questions (i.e. “Did you go on vacation this summer?” and “What’s your favorite thing for lunch?”) will help kids feel better prepared to converse face to face.”
  • Talk about what to expect: Explaining how new activities and schedules will work can help kids feel more prepared and less afraid. Consider, for example, “We’ll leave our house at 8 a.m., then we’re going to go through the drop-off line and walk through the front door of the big brick building.”
  • Show and tell: If possible, schedule an off-hours tour of your child’s school or daycare facility for a walk-through to help familiarize them with the space. If that’s not an option, try looking up photos online or even just walking past the building.

Tips for very young children

If you have a toddler or infant who has never known a truly social life outside the pandemic, prepare them for upcoming changes by acclimating them to being separated from you — starting in small increments.

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“Ideally we want kids to develop secure attachments,” Dr. Eshleman says. “Kids need to know that even when they’re not with their parents, they’re loved and cared for.”

Hire a babysitter or enlist the help of an extended family member to watch your child while you run errands or even just work in the yard, which will give them practice in being apart from you.

Tend to your own stress

Children are inherently attuned to the feelings of the adults with whom they spend the most time. So while it’s certainly understandable for adults to have pandemic-related worries of their own, be cognizant of how you handle your own anxiety and discomfort — especially in front of the kids.

“Kids pick up on the way their parents behave, so parents should be aware of the things they say to their spouse and others,” Dr. Eshleman. “The more uncomfortable the parents feel, the more uncomfortable the children will feel.”

Try not to worry — really

It’s easier said than done, of course, but try to have faith in your kids’ ability to bounce back from tough times and adapt to the world around them.

“Kids are resilient, Dr. Eshleman says. “From a parent perspective, it does not do any good for us to dwell on what might’ve been were it not for the pandemic. Instead, we can acknowledge the challenges we faced and move forward.”

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