Will the Pandemic Disrupt My Kid’s Social Development?
When should parents hit the panic button over their child’s social development? A mom writes in about her shy, introverted teen, wondering if her daughter has enough contact with friends. What key milestones might kids be missing as a result of the coronavirus pandemic? Lisa walks us through the development of social skills from infancy through college age, describing what we should keep an eye on and what we can do at home to help kids build the skills they need.
September 15, 2020 | 28 min
Transcript | Will the Pandemic Disrupt My Kid’s Social Development?
Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 6: Will the pandemic disrupt my kid’s social development?
The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.
REENA: So Lisa, I found this article incredibly amusing in The New York Times. The title is ‘We’re all socially awkward now,’ and it says that people, now they’re deprived of interactions with their peers and their social skills are going to start to atrophy and this is yet another side of the pandemic. I’m wondering if you agree with that.
LISA: You know, I saw that article and I was looking at it I was like, oh man, they’re talking about grownups right, who had actually had fully developed, presumably, fully developed social skills before the pandemic, and right away my thought went to, okay what does this mean for kiddos who are still developing their social skills? And now we’ve got this big pause on the normal circumstances that we put kids in to help them do this, so that that’s been heavy on my mind.
REENA: You know we actually got a question, an email, from a listener and I want to read it to you. It says, ‘I’m a mother of a 15-year-old. Prior to the pandemic she definitely tended toward being more introverted. That being said, she has a great group of friends, the same friends since fourth grade, and enjoys seeing them. However she always has had difficulty initiating get togethers with friends, and this has been magnified greatly during the pandemic with the usual team outings being taken away. So I guess my questions are when is the time to worry regarding a teen being socially isolated during the pandemic? And do I just let her take the lead in all this as long as she seems to be coping okay?’ I think it’s a question that a lot of parents have regardless of what age group your child might be in.
LISA: These are good questions, and certainly questions I’m hearing a lot from parents who are watching their teens have very quiet social lives, especially compared to before and especially if the teen already tended toward being a little bit introverted. And one of the things I’m hearing a lot from parents is how interventionist should I be? How much should I be pushing or urging or encouraging friends to come over? And and so I think that’s got to be heavy on this mom’s mind as she’s watching her daughter be alone a fair bit, and now it looks like over an extended period of time.
REENA: You know you talk about how interventionist should she be. I think a lot of parents worry, when you hit the panic button and really worry, like what are the things at this point that cannot be reversed? What’s the damage that can be done during this pandemic?
LISA: Well if we think about in terms of, you know, real worries like when’s the serious, serious stuff, that would be I think any kid who feels totally socially isolated, who just feels cut off from their peers and has no positive connection to them digitally or in-person, and and that’s grounds for concern actually at any point. Pandemic, no pandemic I always worry if there’s a kiddo who has no friends, and for me the difference between one friend and no friends is, they are universes apart as far as I’m concerned. In this one it sounds like things are quieter but the mom says something really key at the end which is that her daughter actually seems to be okay. And so should she just go with that or should she try to step things up a bit? My rule, again pre-pandemic, post pandemic and also during the pandemic, is that if the kid is okay with it, then the parent has to be okay with it. And I think sometimes this is hard if the parent themselves is quite social and likes to have a lot of connections and a lot going on. I think sometimes if they’ve got a kid who seems like surprisingly content with a fairly small and very tame social life, I think the parent can sometimes go a little bit too far into prompting and pushing, especially when the kids really is kind of do all right and not showing any signs of grounds for concern any other way.
REENA: I’d love to look at social development from sort of college on down with different age groups. Could you walk us through what you feel could be concern during the pandemic with social development.
LISA: Yeah okay so this girl, she’s 15 she’s probably in high school, and the mom senses she’s okay, and what I would say, really actually middle school and up, but we can answer it I wanna go more granular, what we know from the research on what really is necessary in terms of social support, it’s not having a big busy social life, and this is really important actually to tell high schoolers and middle schoolers, that being socially successful, which matters to them, is not about how many people you’re hanging out with and how many people you’re in contact with. When we really scrape away at that research and look at what does it mean to have the, you know, personal connections that we all need, it actually comes down to three things that everybody needs to have, and this is actually true at all ages but it’s really helpful to tell young people this. Everybody needs somebody they can tell their worries to, you know the things that they’re concerned about. Everybody needs someone they can tell their secrets to, people you know someone who can just trust with something that’s very close to their hearts, and everybody needs someone or a group of people who help them to feel connected and accepted. That’s it. And so Reena, some grown ups get this all from their spouse or their partner and are quite content and some kids get these all from one best friend and are quite content, and some people need to spread this across a great number of people. I think I distribute mine a little bit. Do you? What do you think you do?
REENA: Yeah I mean I think I have girlfriends that I’m incredibly close to, and then particularly during this pandemic, I think you you lean on certain people way more.
LISA: yeah, and so it may not even be the same people you leaned on before and that’s actually one thing I’ve seen with kids that’s been quite fascinating to watch, actually, is that for a lot of them sort of the high school middle school crew, a lot of the social relationships they had before the pandemic were very contextually driven, like these are the kids they hung out with because they saw them at school or because they were all in the same friend group, but if you take away the school piece or you take away the ability to get together as a group there’s not a whole lot of glue left to that relationship, and so what I’ve seen actually is a lot of kids who are then rebooting other supportive relationships from other parts of their life that are not as contextually driven. It’s really interesting. I’ve heard about kids, like high schoolers, who had a really close middle school friend who went to another high school and they’re talking to that person all the time because that friendship is not so much driven by being in a traffic pattern together where they go to class or they hang out on the weekend, and I will say I’ve seen the same with grown ups as they’ve been disconnected from their social networks maybe of work or the neighborhood stuff they maybe did. I’m watching grown ups sort of plug into backup social systems like, you know talking to their college roommates a lot, having Zoom wine with people they haven’t seen for a long time, and I really love watching people get creative and know that they need social support but recognize, and this is true for grownups and then we have to extend this to kids as well, it doesn’t mean they have to stay in the patterns they had. They just need someone to tell to tell their worries to, someone who acts as a confidante, and someone who helps them feel connected and accepted, and as long as those needs are met, we’re gonna do it however we can do it and our kids are gonna do it however they can do it in the context of the pandemic.
REENA: So true, I mean I think I’ve reconnected with some of my childhood friends from back in Tampa, Florida, and I get it. It’s like certain needs are being met that they’re helping you through going through the same thing. When you look at teens, what about college students? Do you group them in the same group as teens and what they need at this point?
LISA: I would, but it’s really interesting because a lot of college students and especially new college students are not able to have the social experience they’ve imagined, you know so many of the families I’m talking to about kids who are you know heading off to college for the first time, you know, they are taking a test and then sitting isolated in a dorm room by themselves while they’re waiting for test results and then they’re going and getting their meals and they’re taking them back to their rooms, and the parents especially are feeling very very concerned, like they’re not having the social experience they’re supposed to be having, and as I’ve talked to kids and I’ve talked to some kids at college, you know they’re feeling understandably like they’re not having that experience, and there’s two things I’ve been saying that seem to be helpful. So to the kids, and I would say this to college, teenager, middle school and up, I would say look, here the need to need to be met. Worries, secrets, connected and accepted. As long as those needs are met, you’re okay. And you might be meeting those needs with your parents, may be the people you can tell your worries, it may be a sibling who you know you can tell your secrets to, it may be a friend from camp who makes you feel connected and accepted. As long as those needs are met, you’ve got what I call your cake and that everything beyond that is icing. And I’ve had so many teenagers feel so reassured by this because they look out at these busy social lives and they think, I’m doing it wrong you know what’s wrong with me, and they seem to find it very reassuring to hear that it can be done in any number of ways, as long as those needs are met.
REENA: Gosh, I wish you were there in middle school and high school to tell me that because I always felt like I had one really good friend every year based on your classes, and that that is more than enough to get you through.
LISA: It is more than enough. It is consistently more than enough, and that’s actually really important for us to recognize. And then on the social landscape about going to college, you know, one thing I’ve started saying to families because it is such a mess this year, I mean there’s no other way to describe it, one thing I started to say is that watching this year’s college transition has made me appreciate that normal college transitions cram together three things that are actually each in and of themselves a really big deal. So one is leaving home. The other is getting used to college and being in a dorm and living on a campus, and then the third is starting a college social life. And what I’ve been saying to parents is, this your your kid’s going to do one. They’re going to do the see what a dorm room looks like, see what the campus looks like. They may be home in three weeks, so you’re not doing the huge goodbye, and they will not be having the normal social experience. So if everybody can get used to the idea that they need their cake, they need their support, it’s probably not going to be the college classmates this year, then we can just accept that they’ll do part of the transition now and they’ll do the rest of the transition later.
REENA: It also goes back to what you talked about last week which is setting up, this is what you can expect and letting people know, your children know, that this is not where you want to be, but here’s what we expect will happen. You know the group that I really worry about because I don’t know why, I think I have painful memories from that time period my childhood, was middle school. You’re going through all these hormonal changes. I worry about what are these people who are like adolescent going into their teenage years. Those are big moments in life, right, just like going to college, what to worry about for those kids, when their hormones are raging and they’re not getting a normal setup socially?
LISA: For me the trickiest piece of this actually does feel like sixth, seventh and eighth grade. Little kids are in some ways easier and I’ll say why and then the big kids are easier because they have lots of ways to connect digitally, and they’re more content sometimes with smaller groups so they’ve kind of found themselves in one of two best friends they can accept that. But middle school, you know, it’s so defining who you hang out with and they are, under normal conditions, middle school is like the midwifing from little kid to more like a grown up, you know as a little kid you’re really close with your family and when you’re in high school you’re a little more remote from your family. You can still like them a lot but you don’t tell them all the same stuff. But middle school is that sort of in-between space where kids are really really eager to be separate from their families, and really really anxious about how well plugged-in they are socially, and so I think for them I worry, you know, quite a bit because they’re in that kind of to in-between, and the age especially just to hone one, I think 13 is so hard. You know the 12 you’re still a seventh grader, maybe your parents are still all right. 13, if you are a normally developing 13 year old, your parents, like you are totally allergic to them. Everything they do is everything they do is annoying, and your friends are what you live for. And so I think a lot about that you know, you know 11,12, 13, but especially 13 as kids needing to have support and a sense that they belong and and that’s actually what’s at the core of it is middle schoolers need to feel that they’d belong because they’re they’re just unsure of where they fit into the world.
REENA: What do you think it is that teens need to hear right now?
LISA: I think the older kids for sure benefit from hearing, you know, as long as your needs are met and as long as these three needs are met you’re okay and we’ll sort the rest out later. I think for middle schoolers, they need to hear that there is some where they truly belong, they need to feel there is somewhere they truly belong that is not their family life at home, not their immediate nuclear family. So it really may be that we need to go out of our way to make sure that middle schoolers, even under pandemic conditions are plugged in with their cousins, or plugged in with some classmates you know done safely, or plugged in with wherever there’s a place of worship, some sense of belonging to a group beyond the home. One thing I’ve watched kids do is use texting to create groups of kids. Like I know kids who text all year with the kids they go to camp with, and that is a sense of belonging that is so critical and really will I think help kids get through while they’re feeling unsure of how they belong at school, or in the configuration at school.
REENA: What about elementary age kids?
LISA: So when I think about the social universe of elementary age kids. Since we’re going down from older to younger, so let’s start third and fourth grade. Third, fourth, fifth really. So this is when lasting friendships really start to come into the picture. Younger than that, and we’ll talk about that, like in a K, one, two. The friendships tend not to be as intense and long lasting, but by third, fourth and fifth, kids do start to have a longer sense of, you know, who my friends are and they tend to stay friends with kids over a longer period of the year. But, and this is important, they still are pretty comfortable being embedded in family life. So as we think about kids social development and that three, four, five, the first thing I think parents should take comfort in is, they themselves can probably check a lot of the boxes of, can they tell me their worries? Can they tell me their secrets? Do they feel connected and accepted within the family? A lot of that can get done at home. That said, I think we need to find ways for all kids, even kids were embedded in family life, to see their peers safely, and without masks actually, even if it means having to be outdoors with lots of grownup supervision, they need ways to see each other, read faces play, be spontaneous.
REENA: Why is that it’s important that elementary age kids each other without masks? I never thought that would be of importance?
LISA: Yeah, and I hadn’t really thought that until just now. So much of third, fourth and fifth is starting to really build empathy and understanding the impact of your behavior on others, and learning how to read others in much more subtle and sophisticated ways, and I don’t know how that happens if you can’t see their faces really. So creating opportunities for them to play and be together you know especially while the weather is still good, I think for those kids that part of emotional and social development probably cannot happen when they can’t read each other’s faces.
REENA: I had no idea about that and that phase of development in elementary school. What about kids under five, Lisa?
LISA: Okay, so actually let’s do K, one, two because that’s five, six and seven. These friendships, a lot of them are defined, if you try and go really generally, but what’s called the handy playmate phase of social development, which is I’m friends with whoever wants to do with what I want to do right now. When you watch them play they’re like, oh you want to do jump rope, you’re my best friend! You don’t want to jump rope anymore? Okay never mind, I’m going to go play with that other kid. So it’s important that they have socialization and it’s important that people be with their peers, but those kind of deep, long lasting friendships are not usually the hard core feature of social activity in those ages, and so a lot of what you’re learning, in terms of social development in those ages, is stuff like being fair and taking turns and not cheating. There’s a lot of cheating, and being a good loser, things like that. That’s a lot of the social lessons of those ages.
REENA: And hard to learn at that age too, being fair and learning to lose well.
LISA: Yeah, I mean especially like first graders, they’re really really rigid about fairness and they also don’t like losing, I mean they’re very, it’s sort of the sort of the nature of that age. Those things we can actually work on with our kids at home. I have actually been playing a lot of backgammon.
LISA: I played as a kid and then I haven’t played it since I myself was in the fifth grade, so I had a backgammon board, I think I had gotten it from my practice a long time ago and then never used it, and and you know my my younger daughter who have been playing with, she’s nine she’s passed you know the age where kids get really really hurt about losing or winning or any of those things, but it’s important I think we’re playing games with our kids to teach them how to be a good winner how to be a good loser and a lot of that is modeling it. So with your kids who are K, one, two you know in those grades, play games with them and use that as time to kind of do the training that they’re missing at school around how to be someone who’s fun to play with, basically. Wo I think that’s one thing we can shore up right now.
REENA: And for the kids under five?
LISA: Okay, Reena. I, as a mother, hated playdates with kids under five. Do you remember doing those when your kids were four and under?
REENA: There’s a reason we have two children. I think it was done after the second, it was just so hard, those parents with kids under five do not get enough respect and attention because those are hard years where you can’t tell them to do something. They’re not always, they’re not on the same page as you.
LISA: Not at all. Those play dates that I would set up and I’ve watched other parents set up, you have one idea about how they’re going to go down, like oh we’re gonna go over to their house and it’s going to be so lovely or we’re gonna have them over, and the way it usually goes with three and four year olds especially as it like they can’t stand anybody touching their toys and then they have a total meltdown about something dumb. I remember how freeing it was when I finally just said out loud like, I hate doing playdates. I hate them.
REENA: I was so worried about a kid choking on a lego on my watch, so it just made me really stressed out. It’s a hard age group.
LISA: I don’t miss legos, I have to say, I mean I know they’re really wonderful but the pain, the pain of stepping on a lego when barefoot. It’s like worse than childbirth. So three and four year olds, you know occasionally they have delightful moments, mostly they are so, I find exhausting, I adore them and they are the cutest things ever but they can be really really hard, you know, play dates with. And the thing that makes playdates hard with three and four year olds, and this is something we can work on in terms of just shoring up social skills at home, is they use their bodies to express their feelings as opposed to their words, right, so a three year old if a friend touches their favorite toy, they’re going to go over and grab it out of the kid’s hand, and then you know have a fit, and that’s what three year olds do that’s what they’re designed to do. What we want to do with that three year old is to coach them, to say, you can’t grab stuff from people. You can say, that’s my toy can I have a turn next? Or something like that, we’re doing all that coaching all the time. That kind of coaching we can do without another three-year-old present because three year olds act like three year olds and four-year-olds act like four-year-olds with everybody, so if we’re working on trying to shore up social skills in the absence of spending time with their age mates what we’re gonna do for three- and four-year-olds is really promote the use of language in the place of action, and we’re gonna do that, like you can’t shove, you can’t grab you can say this this this and this but you can’t show me with your body and if we do that a lot at home, they’ll hit the ground running socially where they need to be when they can be back with their peers.
REENA: You know everyone talked about the terrible twos. Nobody talked about threenagers. Three was so hard, I mean I remembered so distinctly. They’re threenagers, like they don’t listen, they don’t want to hear what you have to say, they have a mind of their own. It really is threenagers.
LISA: Three-year-olds are so much harder than two-year-olds and actually we should have a whole show on that I have so much to say on that so let’s put a pin in this because I love talking about three year olds. I adore them and I would say three is hard, 13 is hard, I think the three years can be really tricky, and then one- and two-year-olds, don’t worry about their social lives. Parents are their social lives, that’s okay, so you know, just having a good close connection at home and love at home, no need to worry.
REENA: So not having day care, being around I know a lot of parents with under two aren’t able to send their kids to daycare. Should they be worried about social development at that age where they would be interacting with other kids?
LISA: No, I don’t think they need to worry. I really don’t. I just think as long as they get good love at home and they know what kind relationships feel like, and know how they should expect to be treated by people, that will set them up with everything they need for when they’re back with their kids their same age.
REENA: So bottom line he said when school eventually starts back up again, what do people really have to be worried about with their kids’ social development? What do you think could stumt socially? Is there anything that you’re really worried about?
LISA: In general, I’m not that worried to tell you the truth. I do think kids will be behind. I mean I’m realistic. I think we’re going to do what we can at home to kind of keep things rolling, but the cool thing about kids is that they’re very adaptable and they’re very resilient, and so you know going back actually to that initial question about the fifteen year old, one of the things that’s really interesting and development, because that’s probably a kiddo who’s somewhere between ninth and tenth grade, the way the ninth graders socialize is really different than the way the tenth graders socialize. That ninth graders are still pretty anxious about who they’re connected to. Tenth graders for the most part kind of over it, like eh, I’ve got my friends, I’m cool like you can sit with us like you’re not one of our friends will be like you that’s fine, whereas ninth graders can’t always do that, and so I’ve spent a lot of time thinking like what next year’s tenth graders going to be like. Are they going to be basically like ninth graders? Are they going to be a year behind? And I’m my guess, and this is a pretty strong guess, is I bet they start the year acting like ninth graders and they finish the year acting like tenth graders. I bet that they’re going to compress all of that development into a year. I’m not that worried about it.
REENA: So much to think about, but I think you have these moments where as parents we’re wondering, okay what do I need to think about that when we come out of this we’re not so far behind? Right and I’m not just talking about math and reading, that’s a whole other topic. We are not paying our teachers nearly enough, that’s all I have to say that is the truth I believe that strongly and parents are not meant to be teachers, not all parents I should say, are meant to be teachers, but yeah I think people worry about it a lot. So on a more hopeful note what would you say is your parenting to go?
LISA: Alright, this is it this is one of my favorites and I’m so glad we’re on the topic of social lives. When it comes to kids’ social lives, all of the research tells us that it’s all about quality not about quantity. The happiest kids have one or two good friends. Having a larger social group, however you come by it, even if the kid enjoys it, it’s actually stressful. You’re worried about maintaining all of these ties, you’re worried about how everybody in the group gets along. kids with one of one or two good friends tend to be the happiest, tend to be the least stressed. They themselves can feel like they’re kind of not cool and don’t have a big group, but we as parents can reassure them, one or two good friends, cookie, you are good to go.
REENA: Less is more in the friendship department sometimes.
REENA: Thank you, Lisa.
LISA: You bet.