Stunted Social Skills: The Sneaky Secondary Symptom of the COVID-19 Pandemic

teacher and children in the classroom

by Dr. Julie Caplan

The COVID-19 pandemic has derailed us as a society in so many different ways. Even adults with strong, healthy coping skills have found themselves staring blankly at the ceiling wondering how we got here and what it might take to return to “normal.” There has been a profound shift in how we interact with others, and this shift has been scary and lonely for some (the extroverts), but freeing in a sense for others (the introverts). We don’t yet know how the pandemic will affect us long-term, and it’s hard to imagine what our new normal might look like. What is clear, however, is that our children, tweens, and teenagers have had their lives rocked to the core over the past 18 months. How has COVID impacted development, and what are we going to do about it? 

The Littlest Social Animals

Preschool is a time of exploration. These kiddos are meant to learn through play, and in the process dip their little toes into the world of socialization. For many, this is the first time they have been around a lot of same-aged peers at once. This developmental stage is when preschoolers start to exert power over their individual worlds. They take control of their interactions and explore both their environments and their relationships through play. Preschoolers are also practicing their gross and fine motor skills, starting to recognize and put words to bodily sensations, and learning how to be a part of a larger community. Modeling safe and appropriate boundaries for these kiddos is key! What we want is for these children to develop a sense of confidence in their abilities and as such, feel empowered to make their own choices with self-assurance.

COVID necessitated staying away from other people. This means that our preschoolers were taken out of in-person school during a time in which they needed to stretch their socialization muscles. As a result, these children were not able to practice taking initiative in the context of peer relationships. When this development is interrupted or not navigated in a healthy way, we see kiddos who struggle to take risks and who have trouble tolerating making mistakes. This can have the added impact of starting to believe that one’s mistakes are a fundamental flaw, resulting in kids who create a negative self-narrative of, “I’m bad,” rather than, “I’m human, and every human makes mistakes. I am not the mistakes I make.” 

So, what do we do about this? As parents, we need to facilitate engagement with peers as much as is safely possible. Talk to your pediatrician about your child’s specific health risks and get advice about how to balance social needs with health ones. If you are uncomfortable having your child around others indoors, see how it feels to play outside. Create a pod with another family or two, if possible, and let your children play together exclusively. Allow your child to make as many choices as is realistic, while still modeling safety and limits. Narrate your child’s experiences so that they can begin to make connections between feelings and actions. Model healthy interactions and limitations. Explain why.  

It’s Elementary, My Dear Watson

Elementary school-aged children are starting to take cues from their environment, including their social interactions, about how competent they are. Through their experiences, kids start building upon the foundation of skills they have acquired up to this point. This is achieved primarily through an expanded social world (i.e., school, extracurriculars, play dates, sports) and increasingly complex academics. Children in this developmental stage are noticing how others respond to them, ideally with encouragement and praise, which informs their sense of self and belief in their own abilities. Navigating this stage successfully produces a kiddo who feels comfortable trying new things and who is satisfied that they have tried their best. Feeling competent and secure enough to take risks, even when one might fail, is the foundation for the creation of a solid sense of self. Learning how to tolerate things like losing a game, peer conflicts, or a bad grade, etc. paves the way for how we deal with more complex disappointments as we get older. In essence, kids are developing grit during the elementary school years.

COVID threw a wrench into all of our lives, and as such school-aged children were isolated from most people other than their immediate families. The lack of social interaction or opportunities to learn from different environments means that this group of kiddos has been lacking feedback from external sources, such as classmates, teachers, and coaches. Without this opportunity to socially reference and/or to participate in a structured academic setting, kids have struggled with uncertainty, fear, and hesitation across the board. The sudden transition to distance learning was difficult for all involved, and schools struggled to provide both accessible and engaging instruction. The net result was chaos, and in a lot of cases strained parent-child relationships. Kids were faced with having to stare at a screen for hours or having to complete totally asynchronous work, or a combination of both, without the benefit of a familiar paradigm. For many children, distance learning was a total disaster, both academically and socially. 

Children in this stage of development need a balance of praise, support, and boundaries. Helping them begin to develop their self-advocacy skills is key, as well as providing them with specific strategies they can use when they come across something that feels hard. Again, narrating for your kids is important to help normalize their feelings and to continue to help them recognize and label their emotions. Start to identify areas that feel hard for them, and seek outside help if these areas and/or the level of distress seem to be above and beyond their peers’. It’s hard to know what is “normal” these days, so don’t feel weird for asking! I like to say, “How are you supposed to know until you know?” It might make sense to hire a tutor or an educational therapist to close any gaps in academic foundations. A play therapist might also be a good idea to help your kiddo build their toolbox of coping skills. Remember that kids tend to display internal feelings like depression and anxiety as external behaviors, such as irritability and defiance. 

Something else to consider is how difficult it might be for isolated kiddos to integrate back into society. It can feel really scary to have to socialize with classmates after not having to do so for 18 months. Be patient and take it slow. Sometimes starting with one-on-one playdates makes it easier to find someone to sit with at lunch. Similarly, many kids have a more comfortable re-entry into extracurriculars if they have a buddy with them or even the opportunity for a one-on-one lesson with the teacher or coach to get them back into the groove of group activities. Most of all, provide unconditional love, model healthy interactions, and implement consistent limits for your kids. 

Tweens and Teens Interrupted

Middle and high schoolers are a whole different kettle of fish! Puberty, am I right? Teens and tweens are in the developmental stage of trying to figure out who they are, separate from their family. This is when they try on about a billion different hats to see what feels right and what feels seriously uncool. How are they the same as their peers and how are they different? Social relationships become much more nuanced, and romantic relationships take flight. Social media is both a blessing and a curse (see Dr. Allison Kawa’s presentation on screens and the adolescent brain!). Grades suddenly count for something and expectations increase, sometimes to an almost unfathomable degree. This stage of development often is fraught with drama, and these kiddos’ frontal lobes still have a good 10-15 years left to bake, which means potential issues with impulse control, problem solving, and critical thinking. What we want is for our tweens and teens to continue to develop their sense of self in a healthy way so that their identity foundation is strong and intact, and they feel comfortable with their burgeoning independence. 

Because this stage is focused primarily on observing and internalizing various types of social relationships, the COVID quarantine and resulting isolation has been a total buzzkill. Rites of passage, such as high school graduations and milestone birthdays, had to be canceled. Facetime, Instagram, and TikTok, while convenient, can’t make up for in-person interactions. In fact, they often provide skewed depictions of reality, contributing to negative self-appraisals and feelings of inferiority. When social interactions are all occurring in a text or chat, important social skills fail to develop. The rhythm of conversational turn-taking, the use of eye contact and facial expressions, and the subtleties of voice inflection all fail to translate on a screen. Metrics of self-confidence and worth have shifted for this group of youngsters and can be too heavily dependent on numbers of likes or followers.

In the “before times,” tweens and teens could balance feedback from social media with academic performance, extracurricular talents, and athletics; they had numerous places where they could shine. Many students had to cut back on their outside interests or simply did not have access to them because of the quarantine. Furthermore, distance learning only really worked for a select few, and it was not set up to be truly accessible for different kinds of learners. For those students who needed differentiated instruction in order to be engaged and motivated, staring at a screen for hours on end felt like we were asking them to do their taxes every day…overwhelming and boring. Additionally, students who have learning differences, especially those with difficulties that had yet to be identified, only fell further behind. Now that schools are back in-person, the knowledge gaps have widened even further while expectations for independence remain high. Let’s cut our kids some slack and make sure they have access to as many opportunities as possible where they can excel.

First and foremost, when dealing with your teenagers, pick your battles! I’m a huge proponent of letting these kids explore their identities however they see fit, as long as it is legal and safe. We want them to feel secure as they start to figure out who they are, with you as their home base. Pay attention to their learning, and help them create a global organizational system that becomes habit. Outsource when you need to, because I remember what it was like to have my mom try to teach me math, and it wasn’t fun. Create an open communication policy with your kids, so that they know they can come talk to you. Never shame them, no matter how shamefully they behave! Instead, enforce your family’s limits and boundaries as a teachable moment. Listen to them, make sure they feel heard and understood, and create a supportive and encouraging environment. Continue to model healthy interactions, including how to self-advocate for their needs. Have the difficult discussions so that your teens and tweens can make informed and educated choices, and so that they are then able to have difficult discussions with others in the future. Most importantly, nurture and build upon their skills and interests, encourage them to take risks and try new things, support them when they make mistakes, and love them no matter what.

Houston, We Have a Problem

Our emerging adults (i.e., college freshman and beyond) have had to graduate high school and choose their next steps without the benefit of in-person interactions or the ability to observe their peers organically. It’s already an incredibly scary time for some, and potentially even scarier to make big choices about your post-high school life without the benefit of camaraderie. There is often comfort in shared experiences, and our emerging adults have missed out on this in a big way. Not to mention, the unknown can be terrifying! The unknown plus a global pandemic means that many of our kids have been flying blind into the wilderness of young adulthood. This is the developmental stage where our kiddos put even more stock into intimate relationships, be they platonic or romantic. They are meant to explore what commitment means to them, through increasingly complex and nuanced relationships, in order to determine their own personal boundaries and limits. But what happens when your emerging adult has to start the next phase of their life in isolation? We end up with kids who are risk-averse, and who may potentially experience numerous difficulties exerting their independence. 

If you couldn’t already tell, I’m a huge fan of modeling behavior for our kids, especially when they are unable to be around most other people. It can be helpful to frontload information for our emerging adults, so that they have, at minimum, a framework to work from. You might have to be more explicit in explaining things to them than you would have to in normal times, but it’s important that they are given a fair shot to meet whatever expectations are set. Have open and frank discussions about life after high school, understanding that college isn’t for everyone, and that gap years can be a fantastic choice for some kids. For those whose freshman year was spent in their bedroom on Zooms, this year might be a good time to delve into campus activities or clubs as a way of integrating into a college community. Get a sense of your kiddo’s hopes and fears so that you can work together to make the hopes happen and to validate and then reframe/combat the fears. An uncertain time is made even more uncertain due to powers outside of our control, so any extra stability we can provide to our older adolescents will help them feel more secure in launching into adulthood. 

We’ve all been affected by COVID in different ways. For those of us who are introverts, quarantine wasn’t the worst thing. Still, the world has shifted in innumerable ways, and we have to start to recognize and identify when our children might need some guidance and in what ways. We’re all figuring out this stuff together, and all we can do is the best we can.