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Socialization of children: helping kids adjust to post-pandemic activities

After months without practice, it can be easy for young children to forget the "social rules" of peer interactions, such as sharing, taking turns or being nice to friends. You can help them relearn these skills with gentle guidance.

Since the start of the pandemic, most kids have spent a lot of time at home as schools, daycares and playdates have adapted to the new normal. At first, that extra time may have seemed like a nice break, but within a matter of months, many realities about the socialization of children (or lack thereof) became clear.

By October 2020, roughly a third of surveyed parents said their kids' mental or emotional health had declined since the start of COVID-19. Many symptoms, such as fear and trouble sleeping, have trended upward during this time, and it's not hard to see why: The same issues that have been affecting grownups — like missing friends and family, and working virtually — have also affected children.

Research demonstrates that interactions both inside and outside the home help children build lifelong skills in the areas of language, problem-solving and learning. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many kids haven't had the opportunity to make those meaningful and instructive connections. Plus, the looming public health threat has been scary for us all, and especially for those who have lost loved ones.

But now that vaccines are paving the way for a return to normalcy, families are excited to get back to the interactions they enjoyed before the start of the pandemic. Given the low risk of COVID-19 infection and transmission among otherwise healthy children, many public health experts say it's now relatively safe to resume certain activities.

However, as ready as we all may be to move on, many childhood psychology experts recommend a gradual approach to reintroducing children to daily interactions outside the home. This is because after a year in quarantine, in-person classes and activities may be overstimulating and overwhelming for them. While all kids are different, many will likely need time to adjust before they can fully return to socializing again. Here's how you can support the socialization of children in your life.

Reacclimate kids through routines

Kids thrive on routines, and the pandemic upended many of their usual ones. As things open back up, kids' routines will shift once again, and that may be a challenging adjustment for many of them. To manage this swing back into a busier way of life, parents should help their children start to build habits that will prepare them for the transition.

Two psychology researchers recently wrote about this subject, advising parents to engage their kids in developing a "work-life balance" for their new social schedule. Building a schedule with some predictability can help children fit new commitments into their world more easily. For instance, your family could eat dinner at the same time each night to provide structure to your children's daily routines.

Talk with your children about their routines so that they know what to expect, and be sure to ask what questions they have about their new schedule. For very young ones, you could use "pretend play" to prepare for certain changes. For example, you could act out the greetings and farewells of pickups and drop-offs so these events don't come as a shock once your child starts daycare or preschool.

With encouragement, let them set the pace

Some kids may need to take small steps toward in-person socialization. Ask them what they feel most comfortable with and follow their lead. For example, enrolling in a week-long summer camp might be too immersive too fast, but attending a half-day activity might strike the right balance.

Offer gentle encouragement, but don't force it. Some kids might need a little nudge to get outside their comfort zone, and as their parent, you likely know where that line is. If they seem emotionally spent for the day, you can always try again later when they're ready.

Help them relearn social expectations

After months without practice, it can be easy for young children to forget the "social rules" of peer interactions, such as sharing, taking turns or being nice to friends. You can help them relearn these essential skills with gentle guidance.

Be sure to acknowledge good behaviors with encouraging language. For example, if you're at a playground and notice them behaving politely, you could say, "Great job waiting your turn for the slide!" Or, if they're getting upset with a friend, you could use it as a learning moment: "We're all here to play together and have fun. Do you have any ideas for new games you can play that you both will enjoy?"

Listen to their fears and help them feel in control

After social distancing for so long, it's natural for kids to worry about the physical consequences of getting back to in-person life. They may wonder, "Will I get sick? Will you?"

If your child has these concerns, listen to them and ask questions about how they are feeling. Talk about the value of interacting with others and how vaccines are helping to contain the spread of COVID-19. It could also be helpful to engage their pediatrician to address their fears from a doctor's perspective.

Remind your child that even though many things are outside our control, we can take steps to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe, such as wearing masks, washing our hands and getting vaccinated when we're able to do so.

Every child is different

Every child is unique, and as with adults, the right coping strategies will vary by personality. Some kids may need more time before they jump into the social scene, while others may need to balance outside activities with some quiet time alone. Some kids may even be entirely ready to get back to socializing.

All of these situations are perfectly normal after a completely abnormal year. We've all endured a great deal of loneliness, isolation and other sad feelings, but meaningful connections are on the horizon. Healthy socialization is important for all of us, so encourage your little ones to move forward at their own pace. Playtime awaits!