Rolanda Gott, MD, a UCLA developmental behavioral pediatrician, talks about the potential effects of isolation on young children and what parents can do to help.
At this point, we cannot say there is a significant impact on social development of normally developing children. We need more time to collect data. 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 affect a child’s development.
If parents provide a nurturing environment at home, there should be little effect on normal development or socialization, at least in the short term. 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 affected specifically by COVID- 19. Between ages of 1 and 3, the child relies on parents and siblings to develop social communication and engagement. Up to the age of 3, parents can 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. Without practice, children this age will not be able to model and learn ageappropriate 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.
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.
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, which can lead to aggressive behavior, poor eating habits or sleep issues. Parents should make sure they take care of themselves, get the support they need and do everything they can to prevent being anxious or depressed. Children are sensitive to the level of stress in the family. In order for a child to develop, parents need to talk to and play with their child and engage with physical activity. If they see aggressive behavior or a child who may appear anxious, they need to pay attention to how they engaged with that child.
We recommend that parents adopt a consistent, structured schedule: Make sure children have set times for meals and waking up and going to bed, and maintain the same routine. Showing their child a visual schedule with regular sleep and meal times and different structured activities would be helpful. Parents are encouraged to limit their child’s exposure to news and to screen time alone and to maintain a positive atmosphere at home.