So here we are, almost 6 months in. That’s six months sans popcorn and martinis with the girls, emotional downloads with parents at the playground, and surprise run-ins at the cafe. Our social lives have moved to a rectangle screen and 6-feet-apart hang-outs with a select few.
And then there’s our kids’ social life. That’s where it hurts the most. My daughter just made a new friend on the beach. They did that adorable shy “want to play with me?” and started jumping waves together, but the other girl kept inching closer and closer and my daughter kept shooting me concerned looks, knowing she wasn’t supposed to get too close to her new friend. Oy.
But it’s not just the positive experiences our kids are missing. The kid-to-kid altercations are just as important; fighting over the bucket in the sandbox, being hit over the head with a shaker in music class (of course, that never happens…).
You may find yourself wondering, How is social distancing affecting my baby/toddler? Will they end up being hermits for the rest of their lives? Will they have any social skills whatsoever? Will they have ANY friends? (sob, sob)
These are all VERY valid questions. After hearing your concerns about this for the last couple months, I decided it was time to break it down and see what the experts say. Obviously we are in unprecedented territory. But I did my best to sew odds and ends together to understand what’s going on and come up with a game plan. So let’s dive in.
First of all, when does social development begin?
Right from the start. Infants are attuned to social and emotional stimulation and newborns appear more interested in stimuli that resembles faces, meaning they are interested in people.
At 6 months, infants communicate intentionally to others through smiling, touching and babbling. By the end of their first year of life, they’re ready to interact a bit with another baby and play side by side with the same toy.
In the second year of life babies start to show even more social development. They can move and speak, which means they can coordinate their behavior with another play partner, they can imitate each other, learn from each other, and start to alternate roles in play.
They also want to help others, and sometimes show aggressive behavior with peers.
What skills does my baby need to develop in order to have peer relations?
These are some basic skills our babies need to learn in order to start making friends: Put their attention toward the same object as their peer; regulate emotions; control impulses; imitate a friend’s actions; understand cause-and-effect relationships (ie, if I hit him, he’ll be upset and won’t want to play with me); and be able to express themselves with language.
How do they learn these skills?
Some of it is simply by just growing up. But a lot of it has to do with OUR relationship with them. Your responsive caregiving helps them learn how to regulate emotions, develop a sense of predictability, and respond to their social environment. In fact, your relationship is so important that the level of your attachment with your baby is an indicator of how good their relationship will be with peers.
How do we affect attachment? That’s all the good stuff I teach in our classes: being nurturing, consistent, attuned. Our babies need to have somewhat predictable interactions and they need us to be engaged with emotional sensitivity.
Got it. Our relationship is important.
But what about peers? Is having friends early in life important?
Yes. Kids who had friends early on were shown to have better social lives as kids and as adults. Toddlers who were able to engage in complex play with peers were better at dealing with other children later in school. Also, having friends in early childhood reduces the risk of developing psychological problems later in childhood.
What about siblings? Is that considered being social?
Yes. Sibling relationships are a special kind of peer relationship, more intimate and likely to last longer than any other relationship in one’s lifetime. They provide an important context for the development of children’s understanding of others’ worlds, emotions, thoughts, intentions and beliefs. But the other side of the coin is that frequent sibling conflicts during childhood are associated with poor adjustment later in life, including violent tendencies.
(Don’t worry mama, some fighting is totally normal and even helpful. Our job is to help them learn how to repair after so they know how to do that later on too.)
Ok, so our kids need friends. Does that mean that babies who go to daycare in the first three years have better social development?
Well, let’s look at the ol’ daycare versus home care debate to figure this out:
The National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) did a huge study comparing types of childcare for babies. They concluded that what matters most is not the TYPE of care—whether nanny, parent, daycare, or other—but rather what’s happening at HOME. The children who experience warmth, responsiveness, and the right kinds of stimulation at home had the best social, cognitive, and emotional development regardless of whether they went to daycare or not.
Meaning, for our babies to develop socially it is much more important that the child be responded to warmly and with interest and have frequent back-and-forth interactions during the day with their parents. These kinds of parent-child interactions predict a child’s development far more than childcare factors do.
Ok so they don’t need to be at daycare, but they DO need friends.
But do they need MANY friends? And NEW friends?
Let’s consider this study that showed that when toddlers have stable friendships, they are able to increase the complexity in their social interaction. That means, when our kids have a buddy, they are more apt to work stuff out, learn how to cooperate, learn how to share, and learn what happens when they don’t or when they get aggressive.
So is that the ticket? At least during our ‘Rona days?
Yup. It’s not about quantity, rather quality. It’s about giving your kid one or two GOOD friends, rather than insisting that merely seeing many other babies at the playspace is crucial to their development. Yes, there are benefits to that as we discussed—particularly having the opportunity to mimic and learn from others. But that can also happen with their primary good buddy.
So let’s recap:
What are the two important factors regarding my baby’s social development?
- Their relationship with you at home
- Having stable relationships with friends (but can just be with one or two close friends!)
That’s great news. We can do that!
Here is a list of ways to make it happen:
Make a friend Pod:
You know how the school kids are making learning pods for this year? Consider making your own kids’ social pod. Find one or two families that you trust when it comes to COVID exposure and agree to have social meetings for the kids once or twice a week. Allow your kids to engage and play. And that means all of it. Let them push and pull over a toy they both want, let them cooperate on building a tower, and even let them learn some impulse control by hitting or being hit (with you intervening when needed.) Of course, this is all based on your own comfort level and some guidelines will probably need to be agreed upon by all families in order to maintain safety as best as possible.
When I set out to write this piece I emailed one of my mentors, Tovah Klein (Director, Barnard College Center for Toddler Development,) and asked her what she thought parents of toddlers should be doing in order to help with social development. Here’s her response:
“Best to find one other family for the young toddlers to have some social contact and not worry about them being physically close when they are together. A little socialization goes a long way!”
Here’s another important tidbit from her that touches on building independence, forming a healthy attachment, and relying on others:
“They also need to practice being away from mommy or daddy– so mommy goes out, even for a walk, says good-bye, and then lets toddler know when she is back. Daddy the same. Gentle practice with separation is a step toward socializing with others.”
Help your child develop social skills at home:
The California Department of Education has a great resource on social-emotional development for babies and toddlers. They lay out the foundations necessary for our kids to develop social skills. Using their list, here are some things you can do at home:
Teach your child how to express emotion
Research shows that the ability to express positive and negative emotions plays a significant role in their social development. It is especially important for them to be able to express positive emotions. They appeal to social partners and enable relationships to form.
As we mentioned earlier, our babies are naturally social creatures who mimic others. When they see us caring for others or experience our nurturance to them they mimic our behavior. You can also help them understand your emotions and the feelings of others so that they can understand someone else’s perspective.
Show them emotion regulation
This study shows that children’s ability to regulate their emotions factors in to how well they are liked by peers and how peers perceive their social skills.Here’s two ways to help them with this: One is through modeling. This is a hard one, especially these days when tensions are high. But if we can manage to show our kids that even in very stressful situations we are able to regulate our own emotions they learn that behavior as well. We can also support our babies’ emotion regulation by taking care to minimize their exposure to excessive stress or over-stimulation.
Assist in developing impulse control
This one has a lot to do with our babies just growing up, understanding social expectations, and being able to express themselves better. But we can help them along by teaching them how to deal with the frustration of waiting for needs to be met, inhibiting potentially hurtful behavior, and making safety rules very clear. Having a peer to practice cooperation and sharing with will offer natural opportunities to practice impulse control, so get that pod together if that feels like the right choice for you.
Support social understanding
This one has to do with our babies understanding what to expect from others, how to engage in back-and-forth social interactions, and which social scripts are to be used for which social situations. The good news? This has a lot to do with you. Recent research suggests that infants’ and toddlers’ social understanding is related to how often they experience adult communication about the thoughts and emotions of others. So talk to them about feelings—your own, theirs, and those around you.
So there you have it. All is not lost. In fact, we have all these cool new ways to ensure it’s not. And despite this strange isolated-and-yet-together time, we can make sure that by the time our babies get to their 40th birthday, they’ll have good friends around them and be well-adjusted, happy adults, ready to take on anything. After all, they’ll be able to say they survived “The Covid Era,” right?
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6 thoughts on “How to nurture social development while social distancing”
Thank you for writing this! I’ve been trying and failing to find information on this subject.
One question – is there a special way to teach our little ones how to express their emotions? Or do we just… do it ourselves and hope for the best?
Sarah such a great question. For little ones the first step is to do it for them – “I can see that you are feeling angry. You really wanted that (unsafe thing). You were playing with it and I came and took it away from you and that made you feel angry.”
It is especially great to do it after your little one calms down, maybe even hours later. “Remember how such and such happened and you felt so angry? YOu were yelling and crying, you got on the floor, and then you didn’t even want to eat lunch. That was really hard for you. And I felt…
Now we are both feeling happier and calmer. We can sit together and talk about it.”
The more we do that hopefully they will learn the words and learn that it is perfectly fine to have the difficult feelings, the only question is how we express them.
Thank you for writing this Vered!!! My husband and I have been going back and forth for months about whether to send our 2yo to daycare this fall. We recently decided not to and I’ve been feeling concerned for her social development. This post from you was reassuring for me knowing that her one little neighborhood buddy will be enough for now. And this is silly, but – I also think having a dog around the house keeps her engaged too 🙂 haha
HI Alexandra, So glad it was helpful. And I agree! The dog adds socialization. I’m sure they’re sharing the same toys these days 🙂
A one-friend pod seems way more doable than the overthinking I’ve been doing about groups and dynamics. Thank you for the clarity. You always break through the clutter.
I’m so glad you think so. And thrilled I was helpful xo
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