A school administrator that I recently spoke with jokingly shared that at least the school isn’t worried about lice spreading anymore since the kids aren’t allowed to be close enough for lice to spread. While this might be a silver lining (and I’ve organized enough school-wide lice checks to admit it), kids need and crave connection. Forming social bonds is an important part of childhood and prepares them for adult relationships and is a way of relieving the stress that they experience. In socialization and activities, our kids should be able to relax and be themselves.

The challenge is, of course, that we’re dealing with yet another COVID spike which means that we as parents were making difficult risk calculations as we balance returning to normal vs. avoiding a COVID infection. The stress of not knowing if they can socialize is taking a toll on our kids (and ourselves). Supporting our kids to create a maintain friendships during a pandemic is trickier and, perhaps, doubly trickier during the cold winter months.

Why Socialization Matters

Putting off friendships and connections to peers is different than delaying other milestones events in a child’s life, like a driver’s license or learning how to ride a bike. A recent meta-analysis of research (that’s a study that summarizes other studies) looked at the impact of loneliness and isolation on children’s mental health. The authors concluded that children and adolescents have a higher chance of experiencing depression and anxiety during and after a period of enforced isolation. In other words, preventing our kids from socializing creates a risk of mental health problems.

This study looked at correlations, not causation, so we can’t definitively say that every child will end up anxious and depressed without socialization. It does, however, point to the importance of socialization as a buffer for resilience and as a support for our children’s mental health. Plus, we already know that building and maintaining social relationships is an important part of childhood development and sets the stage for how we will relate to each other as adults.

What Do We Do

Another school administrator that I spoke with recently shared that his focus for the start of the current school year was to build connections with the kids and among the kids. He realized that the curriculum wasn’t the important focus. Rather, it was making the kids feel seen, heard, and engaged with.

Teachers have shared with me that they are focusing on re-teaching (or sometimes teaching for the first time) how to connect with others and what appropriate socialization looks like. Without these kinds of supports, we run the risk of the playground turning into Lord of the Flies.

This is right where we need to be for our kids – creating opportunities for them to connect. We may not be able to have the playdates that we’re used to, but if we can foster connection, it will go a long way towards building their resilience and helping them practice critical social skills.

Here are some concrete steps that you can take as a parent to help foster your child’s socialization.

Figure Out Your Risk Tolerance

There is no right or wrong right now as we figure out what’s happening with the Omicron variant. Rules are changing and it’s making it harder to decide what level of risk is acceptable. Factor in protective factors like vaccination status, social distancing, and mask usage. Recognize that you may shift your decisions around what works for your family and be open and honest about this with your children.

Go Slow to Go Further

If you are walking around with a bit of anxiety over increasing socialization, it’s pretty likely that your child is also. Don’t rush to hold a sleepover for all of the girls in the class. Instead, start with smaller interactions. Limit the number of friends involved and keep the length shorter. This will make it easier for an anxious child to ease back into the saddle of socialization.

In-person connections can begin with basic outdoor interactions. It might be cold outside, but enough warm layers and movement will make this less of a factor. Remember, there are parts of the country where outdoor recess happens when the temperature is below freezing!

There’s Nothing Wrong with Using Virtual

While I don’t think anyone is excited about the prospect of virtual school, there is nothing wrong with using it to support maintaining friendships and building social connections. There were lots of great ideas early on in the pandemic for Zoom birthday parties and those can be used to support one-on-one or group get-togethers. Virtual playdates can work for all ages. Younger kids can play in parallel with each other while older kids can chat or even play video games together.

Virtual doesn’t need to mean video technology. Old school letters and care packages are great to give and receive. Kids can swap books or toys and then interact with them.

Check In to Check on Socialization

Having open conversations with our kids about how they feel is important. Check-in with them about the status of their relationships. The goal is not to grill them like a TV detective in an interrogation room, but rather open the door for them to share. We want them to want to talk about friendship. Create space for these conversations so that they can be one on one and reduce the pressure, perhaps by having them in the car.

Resources to Help with Socialization

Here are a few resources from our site and around the Internet to help you:

Bright Horizon’s Webinar on Socialization for Kids during Social Distancing

Managing Anxiety in Children and Adolescents

CDC COVID-19 Parental Resources Kit

Helping Children Cope With Changes Resulting From COVID-19

How are you supporting your child’s friendships during the age of COVID? Share your strategies in the comments.