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Rebuilding Children’s Social Skills During COVID

Coaching social skills through a period of social isolation.

Key points

  • As social creatures, the social isolation of COVID has resulted in a backward slide on children's and teens' social skills.
  • Limited social interaction, engaging with fewer people, and only doing so in large or outdoor spaces have affected how children interact.
  • It is essential to help children and teens balance social time and alone time to decompress and regain energy.
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Since the beginning of our pandemic, we have become more socially isolated.

At first, there was an immense relief for children with social anxiety because they were not allowed to get together in groups, and staying away from others became the norm.

However, as social creatures, social isolation has resulted in a backward slide on social skills. Children have been instructed to stay away from their peers and to maintain physical distance.

They wear masks to school, which takes away facial expressions inherent to daily interactions. Sarcasm or humor is often lost, especially when they can’t see a person’s lips move while speaking. People sound like they're mumbling most of the time and a joke can be lost when it has to be repeated.

The idea of having to re-build children's social skills became abundantly evident when I was having a conversation with my 15-year-old son who shared that he and his friends are re-learning how to interact with groups. He is re-learning how to interact at a birthday party, how to make small talk, start a conversation, end a conversation, initiate plans, and incorporate different groups.

My younger child is also learning how to navigate playing with a group at a birthday party after having only one friend in his COVID-friendly “bubble” for almost 2 years. He is reacquainting himself with the people he has not consistently seen for a year and a half, who have grown physically and in their interests.

Friendships in first grade are very different from friendships in third grade. Our kids didn’t benefit from growing together through that time, where growth happens naturally and gradually.

Encourage and Create Opportunities for Social Contact

For almost two years, we have been trying to keep our families safe. That has meant limited social interaction, engaging with fewer people, and only doing so in large or outdoor spaces. Children’s social skills and friendships have suffered and they have forgotten how to physically share a space with others.

With that said, encourage your children to engage in social plans on Fridays and weekends. If they are not receiving invitations, encourage them to initiate plans by inviting a few friends to your house, baking brownies, and watching a movie. It’s also healthy to help them find a balance between social time and alone time to decompress.

Ask Questions

Asking children and teens questions can sometimes feel like an assault, so ask gently and indirectly. Ask questions such as:

  • Who did you sit with at lunch today?
  • What game did you play on the playground?
  • Tell me about something funny that happened today.
  • How was your bus ride home?
  • Which book are you reading in English now?
  • What do you think of {insert extracurricular activity here} so far?

These conversation starters can lead to other conversations or provide insight into your child’s school day and social interactions. Listen and try not to intervene with solutions if your child is telling you about conflicts between him/her and another peer or with a teacher or coach. Instead, make statements such as:

  • I’m sorry. That sounds rough.
  • Is there anything you want to do about “this” or do you want to leave it alone?
  • That sounds awkward.
  • It sounds like you handled “that” well.

Talk Through Conflict

If your child or teen shares that they are struggling with a conflict or issue with a peer, sport, or activity, listen and ask questions without offering solutions. Your child speaking aloud about a situation may help him make connections and discover solutions that he hadn’t considered.

The goal is to help your child reach conclusions and find solutions without our intervention, training them to build problem-solving skills for the present and the future.

Many of us have been involved in our children’s social lives for so long and have coordinated and choreographed social gatherings and events for our children alongside other parents. However, in doing this, we don’t give our children the opportunity to find their group or person with whom they truly bond. We also don't give them the opportunities to navigate, fail, problem solve and reconfigure. These are all the essential skills in building resilience.

Ask questions such as:

  • What do you think happened?
  • Why do you think this happened?
  • What do you think you can do? Is there anything you can do?
  • Do you think time or a “break” will help?
  • How do you think “X” feels about this situation?

Use phrases such as:

  • I know this is hard.
  • I believe in you.
  • I know you can work through this.
  • You are handling this situation well.

Raising children is a dance, an art form that requires finding the balance of when to step in and when to stand back. There is no set standard and what might work in one situation on one day may not work another day or with the same child.

Giving space for children to figure things out and experience the natural progression of friendships is difficult enough on its own without factoring in a global pandemic that has resulted in isolation and fear.

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