By Tamra Williams, Ph.D., Deputy Chief Clinical Officer—Children’s Services, Community Behavioral Health, Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services
For children, one of the many consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a decrease in opportunities to interact with their peers in traditional and important ways. Restrictions on face-to-face interactions with peers and playmates and more time spent indoors translate, for some children, into stress and frustration that affects their emotional and behavioral health.
From a developmental perspective, we know that play and peer interaction is important for young children. It helps with social skills, moral reasoning, and cognitive development. Moreover, children staying home 24/7 can add an additional layer of stress to parents, chipping away at their emotional reserves and ability to parent effectively. How can we combat the loss of playtime and the increased stress on parents?
Routines are important. School provides a consistent routine that is vital for most children. With many schools starting virtually, it will be important to create a consistent schedule for children while learning at home. Make new traditions for the routines that typically happen while preparing for the start of a school year. For example, think about what might be needed for successful online learning experiences when planning for back-to-school shopping with your child. Physical activity is also helpful; try to schedule a time for exercise or physical movement into your child’s daily routine.
It is also important to create frequent and varied opportunities for social experiences and activities. For example:
- Schedule face-to-face play dates. If you do so and allow your school-age child to play with a peer, make sure to follow CDC guidelines: keep the child home if sick, use social distancing guidelines, limit touching of commonly used surfaces, wash hands, and have them wear masks.
- Have your child play sports. The CDC recommends taking precautions based on risk, with the lowest risk being sports at home, alone, or with members of the same household and highest risk being full competition between teams from different geographic areas (e.g., outside county or state). The CDC notes that “the more people a participant interacts with, the closer the physical interaction, the more sharing of equipment there is by multiple players, and the longer the interaction, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread.” Therefore, aim for individual sports or sports played with family members and avoid sports with multiple players, physical or close contact, and shared equipment.
- Make time for virtual connections. Use technology to connect with friends, family, and peers.
- Incorporate fun, virtual learning experiences. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the National Park Foundation offer ways to connect with animals and park activities through online events, virtual tours, and live video.
You and your child can also get help from a mental health professional. If your child is struggling to understand the change in routine or cope with social isolation, there are many resources that help parents with developmentally appropriate talks and explanations about COVID-19. If you, as a parent, are overwhelmed by COVID-19-related stressors, there are also resources available to you. We encourage you to seek the help of a mental health professional if you or your child are experiencing any stress or loss that is having a significant negative impact on day-to-day functioning.
Resources for talking about COVID-19 with children:
- “Helping Children Cope With Changes Resulting From COVID-19,” from the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP)
- “Talking with children about Coronavirus Disease 2019,” from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- “Talking With Children: Tips for Caregivers, Parents, and Teachers During Infectious Disease Outbreaks,” from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
- “COVID-19 Health and Safety Guide,” from PA Autism Services, Education, Resources, and Training (ASERT)
- “Flu Story,” a children’s book from Autism Speaks