As the COVID-19 pandemic continues and the threat of renewed stay-at-home orders looms, pediatricians are keeping a watchful eye on the effects of social isolation on infants, toddlers and preschool-aged children.
The good news is if parents provide a nurturing environment at home, there should be little effect on normal development or socialization, at least in the short term.
“At this point, we cannot say there is a significant impact on social development on normally developing children,” says Rolanda Gott, MD, F.A.A.P., a developmental behavioral pediatrician at UCLA Health. “Short term, we suspect there is not going to be a significant impact, but if it’s going to be long term, we don’t know. The longer the isolation continues, there is a higher risk it could impact the children’s development.”
Dr. Gott says parents play a key role in promoting healthy development in their young child – especially during these times.
“If they can make sure they engage with their child through normal activities such as reading, playing, even just talking, singing songs, playing outside, maintaining interaction with other family members through Zoom, maintaining a healthy routine at home and taking good care of themselves,” social isolation should not affect the child, she says.
During an infant’s first year, if the child is being cared for by a parent, grandparent or someone else who knows the child, development will not be impacted specifically by COVID-19, says Dr. Gott.
The same goes for toddlers, she says. “The good news is that between the ages of 1 and 3, the child relies on parents and siblings to develop social communication and engagement,” she says. “Up to the age of 3, parents can actually support the child’s development by modeling interactive play – playing make-believe and this type of engagement – and the child should be fine.”
Around the age of 3, children begin to rely on other children to develop interactive play, to gain social skills and to make friends. Without interaction with their peers, these children may experience a delay in social and emotional development, Dr. Gott says. Without practice, children this age will not be able to model and learn age-appropriate social behaviors from their friends and benefit from the guidance of a teacher.
“They would also have a hard time regulating their behavior based on feedback they receive from their peers, and they may have a delay in developing confidence as they interact with children their own age,” she explains.
To counter this, parents can encourage interactive play with siblings or set up playdates on Zoom or through other web-conferencing platforms. Parents also can model social skills with their child through role-playing during interactive activities with toys and stories – for example reading a book about sharing or how to make a friend, Dr. Gott says.
While social interaction is important, Dr. Gott notes nothing affects children more than stress in the home.
“Parents right now are at risk for anxiety, depression, loss of job, financial stress or being sick. Any of those factors affecting parent well-being can affect a child’s development,” she says.
Social isolation and parental stress can cause anxiety in children, often leading to aggressive behavior, poor eating habits or sleep issues.
Parents are encouraged to limit their child’s exposure to news and, in general, to screen time alone and to maintain a positive atmosphere at home. Showing the child a visual schedule with regular sleep and meal times and different structured activities also can be very helpful.
Parents should be alert to behavioral changes in their child, Dr. Gott adds. “If they see aggressive behavior or a child who may appear anxious, they need to pay attention to how they engaged with that child.”