Coronavirus isolation is hard on all of us because as social beings we miss being with other people. But in some ways, children suffer from lockdown much more than adults. Children are still learning how to regulate their emotions. That makes it more difficult for kids to cope with the feelings of loneliness that come from being away from their friends. Spending time with peers is also crucial to child development, as socializing with others their age is how children learn social norms. Parents can, however, help to offset the lack of close contact with friends in our children’s lives by setting up virtual group activities for them, and by helping them to voice their feelings.
Isolation is meant to keep us safe, to protect us from getting coronavirus. But there is no doubt that isolation takes a toll on mental health. Perhaps no one knows better than Team Impact the psychological and sociological effects of isolation on children. The Boston-based nonprofit serves to match sick children with university student athletes to treat the effects of isolation and depression associated with childhood illness. In other words, combatting feelings of loneliness during isolation is this organization’s chief business.
The founders of Team Impact are well aware that school, friendships, peer activities, and achieving age-appropriate milestones are the work of childhood. All of these activities affect child development in a variety of ways. When a child is isolated from friends, whether by childhood illness, or a pandemic, the usual social rhythms of childhood are interrupted, affecting a child’s social development. Survivors of childhood cancer, for example, report having fewer friends and more difficulties forming close friendships than their healthy peers. The isolation and social distancing that come with COVID-19 interfere with a child’s social life and social development in much the same way. Director of Clinical Services for Team Impact Rachel Rogovin offers the following tips to children grappling with feelings of isolation and depression due to the coronavirus pandemic stay-at-home orders:
Coronavirus Isolation Tip #1: Try (Virtual) Teamwork!
“Being a part of team can help children feel less alone. Parents should try to create new ways for children to form teams to do an activity they can do at the same time as their friends while on lockdown at home. That might be a puzzle-of-the-week team, for example, or perhaps a book club. This type of teamwork builds self-confidence, friendships, social skills, and a sense of belonging or community,” says Rogovin.
“Parents can conduct guided activities to help kids develop and enhance social connections with their team or community group during this time of social distancing. Make sure the activities you choose have key takeaways or learning objectives to ensure that the children and their teams get the maximum social-emotional benefits.”
Dr. Shelli Dry, an occupational therapist and director of clinical operations at Enable My Child, a pediatric therapy provider, suggests the usual practical solutions for school-aged children who have already established social relationships. There’s texting and video chatting, along with social media engagement, and participating in virtual events. These are all ideal ways for kids to interact with family and friends during the quarantine.
Coronavirus Isolation Tip #2: Daily Check-Ins
But Dry goes beyond the obvious with these more out-of-the box ideas for dealing with loneliness and isolation. “Outside of digital communication, children and families can start their day by journaling or writing down what they like about the specific people they miss. Other possible projects include sending a handwritten note to friends, making plans for activities to do once the restrictions are lifted, having daily check-ins with family members on feelings of loneliness and missing friends, and working with family members to create a memory book.”
Dr. Nekeshia Hammond agrees with the need for daily check-ins. “Children and teens deal with quarantine and massive changes in their lives in different ways. This makes it vital for parents or caregivers to have daily check-ins where we ask them about their day and their needs. Even if kids do not want to talk about these issues, check-ins help kids remember that there is someone who cares enough to check in with them and see how they are doing,” says Hammond.
Coronavirus Isolation Tip #3: Validate Your Child’s Feelings
Katie Lear, a counselor and play therapist in private practice, specializes in treating school-aged children with anxiety and trauma symptoms. Lear believes that validating a child’s feelings can go a long way toward combatting feelings of isolation and loneliness. “It’s hard for kids to be separated from their classmates—kids weren’t meant to be in isolation like this. Children are hearing a lot about the stress of adults under quarantine, and it can be meaningful to hear that their stresses are also significant. A simple comment like, ‘I know this must be so hard for you,’ or, ‘It’s not fair that you can’t see your friends,’ can help children feel like their parents understand why they are struggling right now.”
Coronavirus Isolation Tip #4: Add an Activity
Lear says it can be hard for kids to feel the same sense of connection in Zoom meetings as they would if they were meeting a friend in real life. “Adding an activity, such as completing a craft together or baking a simple recipe with help from a parent, can help make virtual playtime feel more ‘real,’” says Lear. “You might also explore other non-screen ways to keep kids in touch, such as finding a pen pal for exchanging letters and drawings.”
How One Mom Does It
Kelley Kitley, in addition to her psychotherapy practice, is an author and the mother of four children, ages 8, 10, 12, and 14. Kitley says that FaceTime, Zoom, and Xbox have been the lifeline of her children during the coronavirus lockdown, helping them to stay socially and emotionally connected to their friends. “My youngest child sets up playdates with her friend to play dolls and eat snacks. My older daughter has Netflix hangouts where she watches movies with friends. My sons, meanwhile, stay connected with friends through interactive video games.”
More Social Activities You Can Do Online
Morgan Champion works with school counselors across the country in her role as manager of counseling services at Connections Academy. Champion says that parents need to actively facilitate safe socialization for their children. “Remember, much of your child’s time at school is about having fun and socializing with friends. Ease their longing to play with their friends via the phone and technology tools that allow socialization from afar, such as Zoom, Google Hangouts or FaceTime.”
Champion suggests that many kid-friendly social activities work well as virtual activities, too. Here are Champion’s top suggestions for online fun:
- Schedule FaceTime dinner parties with friends and family
- Host a virtual show-and-tell or talent show
- Take virtual field trips to museums or foreign countries
- Create fun themed dress-up days
- Have a story time hour by phone
Parent-Supervised Parallel Play
Dr. Fran Walfish, family psychotherapist and author of “The Self-Aware Parent,” agrees that online activities are the way to go, beginning with virtual playdates. “The parents and kids I am seeing on Skype and Zoom are complaining about social isolation for the kids and they’re arranging virtual playdates, where kids schedule a date and time to engage in parallel play online. They do the same activities that their friends are doing at the same time and chat about it together,” says Walfish.
“Activities suitable for parallel online play include block building, Legos, coloring or arts and crafts, baking cookies, and the current favorite: Minecraft. No matter what activity your child chooses, virtual parallel play requires parent supervision to be successful.”
Coronavirus Isolation Tip #5: Get Kids to Talk!
Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge, a psychologist and pediatric mental health expert, feels that it’s all about getting kids to talk, “We are weeks into a quarantine and kids and families are feeling isolated and some even feel sad and depressed. Parents can help their children combat feelings of loneliness. But first, they have to open the door to communication about how loneliness feels.
“Developmentally, children can think only from their own perspectives and may get lost in their emotions,” says Capanna-Hodge who agrees with Lear that validating a child’s feelings is important. “When children learn to identify what they are feeling, parents can then help them process those feelings so they feel validated. That validation leads children to feel in control and capable of managing their emotions. It is also important for children to know that loneliness is a normal feeling right now during quarantine and they can do things to feel less lonely.”
Coronavirus Isolation Tip #6: Foster Independence
Capanna-Hodge says that helping children come up with their own ways of combatting loneliness can give them confidence and skills that make them feel like they can manage the coronavirus isolation on their own. “Ask them what is making them feel lonely and what they think they could do to make it better. Help them write a list that they can tape up on their wall when they need ideas. Teach them about ways they can improve their mental health, including walking in nature, gratitude journaling, doing 4-7-8 breathing, yoga, and meditation.”
Even More Online Social Activities
“During quarantine, it is especially important to stay active and mentally engaged mentally, keep a routine, work on projects every day, connect virtually, and find comfort,” says Cappana-Hodge. “Being idle and watching Netflix, on the other hand, will only feed loneliness, so create a routine and be active with purposeful activities.
“There are so many ways to connect with others and when kids get stuck, parents can always help kids come up with new ideas,” says Capanna-Hodge, who suggests the following ideas for social activities kids can manage in spite of the coronavirus lockdown:
- Have parents work together to help kids play an online or board game, together
- Do crafts with a friend via Zoom
- Have a remote playdate with a classmate
- Take a virtual group exercise class
- Walk the dog for a short distance
- Have a family cooking session
- Call cousins or grandparents on the phone
- Read to or do a craft with a younger sibling
- Join a virtual youth group.
Capanna-Hodge cautions that parents should contact a therapist, if they are concerned that a child is more than just lonely and may be depressed. “Look for a licensed therapist who can support you and your child virtually.”
Maintaining Connections Reduces Loneliness, Offers an Anchor
Psychologist Nina Kaiser, owns a wellness studio that focuses on building a sense of community and on helping kids, teens, and parents develop the skills they need to effectively manage anxiety and stress. Kaiser says that maintaining connections with family and friends can help reduce loneliness and offer an anchor to children at a time when routines are disrupted. Finding ways to keep the connections going can also help children practice social skills and maintain relationships even when social distancing keeps kids from engaging in face-to-face connections. “Parents can do virtual playdates with friends via Zoom or other teleconferencing platforms or facilitate drive-by meetups that adhere to social distancing requirements.
“Kids can also write letters to friends and family, or take turns dropping off surprises or care packages to friends,” says Kaiser, who adds that “Focused attention in the context of one-on-one time with parents can also be helpful in increasing a child’s sense of connectedness.”
Helping children achieve that “sense of connectedness,” as Kaiser describes it, must be our central goal right now, as parents of children. Because none of us know when the pandemic will end or how long our children will need to remain isolated from their friends. Not knowing when this will end is, in fact, a key part of what makes coronavirus isolation so difficult for all of us. Rather than focus on what we cannot do or know, we must do the best we can to help our children connect to their peers for the duration.
It’s crucial to their development. And their mental health.