It’s been over a year since Covid-19 spread across the globe, and it has changed nearly every aspect of our daily lives. While it’s unclear what “back to normal” means yet, the relaxation of restrictions from the beginning of the outbreak has put some semblance of normality back into our lives.
Still, children—the age group least affected by the disease—have been negatively impacted by the changes caused by the pandemic. Social distancing (literally) puts friends at arm’s length, masks cover up their facial cues, and lockdowns thrust them into social isolation. Naturally, parents are worried that these experiences may permanently affect their children’s moods and social skills. But to what extent is this true, and how can parents help? Local mental-health experts weigh in with their perspectives.
The Decline of Social Skills?
“Social skills have absolutely been impacted,” says neuro-psychiatrist Dr Madhu Pawha of Dr Madhu’s Clinic. “You need to learn social cues, body language and poses, and hand gestures.” However, Dr Pawha is optimistic that children will acquire these skills quickly as we move into normality. “Children pick things up very fast,” she reassures us, “these are not irreversible changes.”
A lot of information is communicated through facial expressions, but mask-wearing can hide much of the face. “Children may feel isolated if they cannot see the positive smiles of caregivers,” says Dr Ahsan Nazeer, Division Chief of Child and Adolescent Mental Health at Sidra Medicine. Despite this, Dr Nazeer is adamant that, mask or not, children can still accurately recognise the emotional states of those wearing them. Furthermore, he says that it’s entirely possible that mask-wearing will help children become better verbal communicators and encourage them to make more eye-contact to compensate for the lack of facial cues.
Socialising Through the Screen
“I see children—both in the clinic and in daily life—who are not motivated to go to school, don’t have a lot of fun, they can’t play, and can’t clearly express their feelings or are unable to talk about [their emotions],” says Dr Rasha Abdelbary Zaki, a psychiatrist at Naseem Al Rabeeh Medical Clinic.
Children have a strong urge to interact with their own peer group. So, parents should not expect to fulfil their children’s social needs during periods of isolation. Even if they can’t physically meet with friends, kids can still keep in touch with their classmates digitally. Try to gently encourage your children to chat with their friends online, play virtual games, or engage in safe, fun challenges with their classmates.
Although our generation values in-person social interactions over virtual ones, that’s not necessarily the case for our children, especially as time goes on. And according to Dr Pawha, for particularly vulnerable children suffering from social anxiety, meeting in a virtual space is a very effective strategy. It creates an environment that feels safer for them and gives them a better sense of control over social interactions.
From a parent’s point-of-view, of course, too much screen time is an issue, but connecting with friends is critical as we wait for restrictions to end. In time, children will meet their friends in real life, attend parties, and do indoor activities. But for the moment, it’s essential to maintain social connections with friends through the means available.
Dealing with Demotivation
“Children are more active than adults, so the lockdown can affect them more,” cautions Dr Zaki. Their self-esteem and confidence in their abilities may have dropped because their usual activities have been cancelled. Dr Zaki also points out that some children may feel embarrassed because they gained weight during the lockdown. This could further isolate them from re-engaging with activities they previously loved doing.
It’s important to motivate children to keep up with their skills or even update them using the virtual tools at their disposal. There are plenty of online classes available, and many are free or are very affordable. Outdoor spaces at public parks usually remain open to children except under strict lockdowns, so take advantage of those areas as well. Also, don’t forget to frequently praise your kids and remind them just how amazing they are. Unfortunately, they just aren’t hearing those words of encouragement as much lately.
Getting Out and About
“Recognise which activities your child enjoys doing and set up playdates with other children that have similar interests,” suggests Dr Mohamed Al Breiki, a Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Fellow at Sidra Medicine. “One-on-one interactions as a start will be easier for a child to handle and similar interests will keep both entertained.” If these go well, parents can start arranging playdates for multiple children.
If your child is hesitating over joining an upcoming event like the start of in-person school or a big social outing, help them get ready by role-playing. Present a social situation and guide them through what they will do in response. This will help them feel prepared. But don’t push them into uncomfortable social situations too quickly, cautions Dr Al Breiki. Start small to build up their confidence.
Fight the Fear
Many children experience anxiety over Covid. They may fear getting sick or passing the illness onto loved ones. It’s essential for parents to counteract these fears with scientifically based information, advises Dr Pawha. “It doesn’t mean they don’t have to take precautionary measures, but the fear should be put to rest with the right kind of information.”
Dr Zaki agrees: “Parents must reassure their child [about Covid]…if parents are alarmed, then children start to absorb that alarm.” She warns that worries about Covid can even develop into OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), as trauma is known to trigger the condition. Parents should also note whether their child is excessively washing their hands or constantly using hand sanitiser. Additionally, they should try to alleviate their fears with correct, evidence-based information. “Reassure and even challenge them,” says Dr Zaki. One helpful strategy could be using timers to limit behaviours like excessive handwashing.
Dare to Dream
Teenagers have a broader perspective than younger children and know that they are losing out on typical life experiences. Still, they may not understand that these restrictions are only temporary and that they will emerge from these challenging times. Parents need to acknowledge losses because they are real and do hurt. At the same time, teens need to be reminded that better times are ahead.
Dr Zaki recommends that parents share the dreams they had as teenagers. This opens an avenue of dialogue and helps their teens understand that the path towards their hopes and dreams is not always straightforward, but it is still available to them with a bit of creativity and a lot of persistence.
In fact, this is something we all need to remember and model for our families.
When to Seek Help
Ask yourself whether your child is naturally shy or whether the lockdown has caused an abnormal change. The latter could be a cause for concern. Some changes could signal a child who needs medical attention—newly-developed social anxieties, phobias, and depression should be addressed by mental health professionals.
“We do not yet fully understand the pandemic’s long-term mental health effects on children,” says Dr Nazeer. But parents can treat this period as an opportunity to address their child’s social-emotional needs and continue to support a healthy path of development. So, don’t let this moment pass, as it won’t be long until we are thrust back in the hurly-burly of daily life.