Ask Dr. D: How Can Parents Help Kids Safely Socialize?

Oct 14, 2020 / By Cailyn Bradley

Socialization: Some of us miss it, some of us don’t, but regardless of how we feel, our kids need it. When the pandemic put playdates on hold, many parents thought it would be temporary. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case for many families. 

“Well, it’s been five, six months and it’s going to be, I hate to say it, at least another six months, a year, a year and a half. That’s too much time for our children to not be around other children in a real and physical way,” Dr. Dimitri Christakis tells us.

According to KiwiCo’s child development expert and pediatrician Dr. D (Dimitri Christakis), playdates during the pandemic are a must. But there are a lot of questions that come into play with safe socialization. So our Director of Brand (and mom of a toddler), Clara, turned to Dr. D for answers. If you don’t know Dr. D, you can learn more about him here before diving in.

Many parents in the KiwiCo community want to know if their children are missing out on key socialization opportunities because of the school and daycare closures. Is this the case?

School is incredibly important for cognitive development. But it’s incredibly important to social-emotional learning – across the entire age spectrum. We’re very social creatures. We need to be around other humans. Our older children clearly can get some connection with their friends over social media and Zoom. But I want to emphasize, it’s even more important for young children who cannot get the same, cannot get any of that mediated through a screen. They still need to see their friends and we need to find ways for them to do that safely.

So how can parents go about planning playdates during the pandemic?

The first thing you want to do is limit the number of friends that they’re around. Ideally, these are kids who you know, whose parents you know and trust to be as responsible as you are. They’re also being careful about who their kids are exposed to. They’re wearing masks when they go out. They’re washing their hands when they come home – all of those things.

Then find ways for your kids to get together with them. If they can be socially distanced, that’s obviously ideal. If they can wear masks, that’s ideal. If they can be outside, that’s ideal. Take full advantage of the opportunities that the weather allows you to get your kids together outside. As the weather changes and they have to come inside, again, it’s best to practice those mitigation strategies. 

I have a two-year-old. I would love to ask, what about socialization for babies and toddlers?

For very young babies, thankfully, during this time, really all they need is parental love. You’re the most important thing in their lives. Up until the age of six months, they’re delighted to just be around you. I think starting from six months and up, they do start to benefit from being around other children. Play is really children’s work. It’s how they develop their minds. It’s how they develop their social skills. It’s how they learn to share. It’s how they learn to negotiate. It’s how they learn empathy. All of those things are incredibly important.

If you have a six-month-old, you’ve already noticed that they’re fascinated by other babies. They already recognize them as something that’s like them. They want to interact with them. They want to be near them. You have to allow them that opportunity. It’s important to find ways for your children to do that safely. Make a point of them washing their hands as frequently as possible. Point out social distancing when you do it. 

For a two-year-old, they can wear a mask maybe if they’re able to. If they’re not able to, that’s okay. I think we should be socializing our children to wear masks. One of the most important things you can do to get your child ready for school is to practice the things at home that you want them to do at school or other social situations. So make a point of them wearing masks every time they go out. Let them choose a mask that they like that has special value for them, so it’s a prized possession and they’re happier to wear it.

Will masks impact children’s ability to develop social skills like the interpretation of emotional cues?

The truth is a lot we don’t know about this pandemic. That’s one of them. We don’t have much data on children wearing masks or being around people that wear masks all the time, but I do think it’s really beneficial, at least from a theoretical perspective, for children to see faces and have an opportunity to read emotions. That’s where social distancing becomes important. That’s where people that are in your pod become even more important since they’re around them without masks on. 

How can parents help their babies and children read the emotions behind face masks?

It’s really an interesting test because the entire face is very expressive and there are a lot of cultures as people know that cover everything but the eyes. In Islamic countries, for example, some women cover everything but their eyes. The eyes actually convey a fair amount of emotion. In most western countries, we tend to look at the entire face. In fact, we rely much more on the mouth than we do on the eyes. All of it is very expressive. It’s not enough they see this on screens. They do need to see it in three dimensions and with real people. I think you should make sure they have such opportunities and that they will. 

One parent told us that their child freezes when someone unknown is near. How can we help kids who are developing a fear of strangers or people getting too close?

It’s a really good question. Many children are having increased anxiety in particular around strangers. I think like any anxiety, it’s important that you recognize it, that you validate it, that you understand it, and that you help your child get through it. The best way to get through it, like with any phobia, is exposure.

How do you do that? Well, you can’t expose your child to strangers that they don’t know and you don’t know. But there are also people that you know and they don’t. In that scenario, you can make a point of introducing them in a way that you feel is safe. Over time, they can slowly get over the anxiety of meeting strangers.

All of this will pass. I don’t want people to be so panicked to think that their child is going to be irrevocably harmed by the situation we’re finding ourselves in. We’ll get through this together. Our children will be fine. I do think though, that we should do everything we can to help them – to nurture them, to support them, and to support ourselves. I think it’s incredibly important that we have grace with each other, grace with our children, and grace with ourselves. Forgive yourself. It’s a very, very difficult time to be a parent.

To help parents with kids of all ages get the answers they need, we asked Dr. D to talk about all things COVID-19. From stress to education and future implications, he shared detailed evidence-based research and advice in response to questions from parents in our KiwiCo Community. Now, we’re sharing everything Dr. D had to say with you! Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get all his advice in your inbox. If you have questions you want answered, follow us on Instagram @kiwico_inc and send them our way!

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