Socialising your little one as we come out of lockdown

Development | | Gail Miles

hints and tips on how you can help prepare them for more social situations as the countries unlocks

By Gail, The Playful Expert

As we begin to reopen and restrictions lift, parents and caregivers are reminded that their children have lost quite a bit of socialising time. We’ve had over a year of cancelled birthday parties, sports and dance classes, playdates with friends and all other activities where young children typically get to spend time socialising with peers.

Social interactions are an important part of the development of children, and spending time with peers is typically part of that process. Children need social interaction to thrive and encourage healthy brain development it’s through this that they learn:

• how to give and take

• social cues

• social norms

• how to understand emotions

• how to cope with challenges

• how to make decisions

• how to interact with others

• empathy skills

• negotiation

• how to develop relationships

• how to take responsibility for mistakes

So what can be done to help your child?

Don't panic!

First of all, try not to panic! It’s understandable to get distressed at the thought of your child missing out on things. But there is nothing here that has damaged your child or left lifelong problems for them in the future.

Let’s reframe the idea of loss too – we have all been socialising this year; yes it may have not been in the way that we are perhaps used to. But your children have spent every day with you and perhaps others (and animals!) in your home; you and your child have been giving and taking, reading cues, accommodating others, playing together and going back and forth. Remind yourself that there has not been a complete absence of learning and social skills; it has just looked different.

There's also no need to express any anxiety to your child, such as saying, “I’m worried about you not having a playdate in so long!” Instead, remain calm and confident with your child.

Panicking can also lead to you over-compensating to try to expose your child to too many interactions, in the efforts to try to ‘make up for it’. I’d recommend making gentle changes to your routine and to introduce new experiences as and when we are able to, safe in the knowledge that young children adapt far quicker than adults do anyway!

These skills help encourage cognitive, literacy and physical development; which are all entwined.

Due to this substantial period of time away from others, they’ve not only missed hearing the verbal language of different people, the tones of their voices and of learning how to adapt to their different accents but it has also meant that they have missed out on learning about non-verbal communication too. You know those important signs that keep a conversation going – for example to indicate turn-taking.

They may also have missed learning the rules of social interaction with others; how it differs with friends, adults and then strangers. It has been really hard to do this, even on those few occasions more recently as we still have this new face-masked society to navigate around, which really goes against being able to read someone’s facial expression alongside actual physical interactions with others too; learning those all-important rules that our children would normally acquire at this age and stage.

However, children tend to be resilient and extremely adaptable. There is also a lot to be said for all the interactions that were had during lockdown, with siblings, parents and even pets. It is also important to note that time alone is really important for children too.

Although we can’t know for sure how much of a toll this pandemic will take on children’s social development, it’s important to remember children are always learning wherever they may be, and whoever they may be with.

It is also important to mention that children’s brains really do grow at such a rapid rate – therefore the door to their social development hasn’t been closed over the past year! They learn and grow each day and will most certainly be able to make up for lost social time over the coming months as you both rediscover friends and the joys of being with others again.

So try to focus on the benefits you’ve both gained - spending time together at home and have a think about the following going forward:

Play, play and more play!

We are able to teach so much through play! It is a natural human need to play, and children need time to do it each day.

Play can either be structured or unstructured. Games like ‘Simon says’ help pre-schoolers practice social skills, like taking turns, following directions, and having self-control. For infants, playing games like ‘peek-a-boo’ can encourage back-and-forth babbling, a foundation for later social development.

If you are feeling a little apprehensive about setting up play dates with other mums, why not pop along to a local park, you will be able to stay as distanced from others as you feel comfortable and also allow your child to observe or begin to play with others in an open area.

Your child may show signs of being a little anxious, shy or nervous themselves at the start, but again once this becomes a little more ‘normal’ they will soon get the hang of socialising with others and it will end up feeling like a distant memory.

However, if your child acts a little timid in social situations, it is not necessarily a reaction to the past year. It may be that your child is a little more reserved or slow to warm up. They may require you to help ease them into play with other children by standing with them whilst observing other children playing, narrating what you see. Use your child’s cues to meet them where they are, and give them the support they need at that moment in time. They may even want you to then join in the play with them – which you could do and then step out for a few minutes and re-join when your child becomes more comfortable.

*Why not check out your local area to see what play groups, soft play areas and classes are available now that the country is opening up - you could get your little one involved in different activities and perhaps meet some other lovely parents yourself too!*

A difference of opinion!

Use play opportunities to teach your child ‘referential communication’. This is where you explain something from your own viewpoint to someone who has a different viewpoint. Younger children find this tricky because they assume that if they can see something, others can too and in the same way. I’d recommend sitting back to back with your child, and talking about the different things you can both see together. They will probably assume that whatever they can see, you can too.

These are great skills to help them learn to see the world from other people’s viewpoints, which will help when they socialise with others in these new situations and with school as they grow up. You could also use little characters, teddies or dolls to develop this skill too. For example, you could try asking them to explain to a doll in an upstairs bathroom in the dolls’ house what the doll in the downstairs kitchen can see.

Acknowledge feelings

Provide opportunities where you can discuss feelings with your child, this will allow them to know that it is OK to let you know how they are feeling and will continue to help them develop their awareness of how others feel too. You could do this through conversation or you can set up some different play opportunities such as playing with playdough where you could make different characters or faces showing emotions, using mirrors to practise making different expressions or by reading different books that discuss emotions or have feelings and emotions for the storyline.

Make the most of the new!

As we are now able to do a lot more with others than in the past recent months, and have the choice of whether we would like to wear a face covering (in most places now), it is important to make the most of new social situations.

It is important to model to our children, even if it is just engaging in conversation with the window cleaner, bus driver or postman, as it provides those all-important social situations that we have not really been able to have in these recent months.

You could ask your child if they would like to say a socially distanced hello to different people and encourage your child to respond once the person has greeted them. You could also comment on the interaction and point out things that you can see, such as their facial expression, whether they have facial hair that partially blocks being able to see their mouth, or what their body language looked like. This encourages your child to focus on the structures that allow language to flourish.

Take it slow

Transitioning back to a more ‘normal’ way of life after being in lockdown is no easy task. You may find that your child struggles to socialise with others or experiences difficulties when they do. If this is the case, take it slow, take a step back and find a small-step system that will work for your child and you going forward.

It is also important to mention here that if you are concerned about your child’s mental health at all and you think they may benefit from professional support, you could speak to a professional and your GP about the best next step – remember you are not alone, we have all been through a difficult period of time together and there are people there to help.