Widespread social distancing practices have struck us like a lightning bolt. Whether they show it or not, children are affected by the physical distance from friends, teachers, and family, and missing all the routines and activities they used to participate in. Social distancing practices have caused abrupt changes to everyone’s daily life and placed unforeseen burdens on us, all while also requiring a quick and seamless adjustment.
Parents finished off the school year homeschooling and working from home, fitting into a 24-hour period the roles and responsibilities of what feels like four different people: the teacher, the employee, the parent, the playmate.
Where does this leave our kids?
Are we asking our children how they are doing? How are they adjusting and managing these big changes, and what are we doing to support them? As we cope with the load of uncertainty these days, there are simple and concrete things we can do to support kids so that they maintain meaningful connections.
To learn more about how to support children’s mental health and social participation under challenging conditions, a pediatric occupational therapist (OT) came to mind.
“Occupational therapy is the only profession that helps people across the lifespan to do the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of daily activities (occupations).” (AOTA) Celina Casas OTR, OTD, shared that, “Social participation is one of our major areas of occupation. As occupational therapists we look at individuals ‘holistically’ — meaning the biological, social, and mental aspects — so it is important that we continue to provide our children with opportunities to fill the void and aid in making them [feel] whole.“
As our routines have changed by the social restrictions in place, social participation is an area that has been significantly impaired. Children are naturally curious beings who crave interaction, physical contact through play and reciprocal nonverbal communication, like the gestures and laughter in response to silly games and pretend play. Even older kids are constantly texting their friends as a more low-key way to be socially engaged.
Meaningful connections with other human beings is at the root of mental well-being no matter what age we are, and it becomes much more important to have reliable, safe relationships with others from a young age.
“Right now children are limited in their education, play, and social participation. This can be affecting the child holistically. Balance is important and required [in order] to participate in daily life and for overall daily occupational performance for both children and adults,” Casas said.
How can we support these connections in the online world? Celina and a few other parents who preferred to remain anonymous, ranging from Head of School to therapists to lawyers, shared what is working for them with their kids at home.
Parents have turned to Zoom, FaceTime, and Google Meets to facilitate online meetups for their kids with friends and family.
Messenger Kids from Facebook is an easy and safe way for younger kids to chat on their own with friends. Through this app, parents have full control of the experience: a parent dashboard to monitor activity, control who the child talks to, and see their messages. Kids have the freedom to interact online while being protected from the common online dangers.
Social Games Online
Games like Roblox, Maker 2, and Mario allow kids to play together while simultaneously interacting. For older kids, there’s Minecraft and Fortnite.
Little kids can connect with their friends, with a parent’s help, to do a planned shared activity such as reading a book, playing with Play Doh, dancing, or doing a guided craft.
This is a great activity at any age and fosters expression and deeper connections and is in itself an activity that can be as creative or therapeutic as the writer needs it to be. Younger kids can participate by drawing pictures or making a craft to send to someone they miss.
Stay Connected as a Family
Home should be the core place where kids feel safe and at ease. While keeping the kids busy and entertained may come to mind first, remember that family is the heart of love and connection. Find meaningful activities to do together like reading, pretend play, eating a meal together with all media off, dancing, doing puzzles, or having a family movie night. A parent represents a child’s most meaningful relationship. Reassure children they can turn to you or that they can reach out to another trusted adult if they need to talk.
“These alternatives still allow for children to partake in these important occupations in a different virtual way,“ Casas said. Providing options respects a child’s sense of autonomy and fosters self-confidence, while the parents are able to maintain safe boundaries.
Meaningful connections are important for everyone. As we continue to navigate daily life assimilating the changes occurring, it is important to remember that children are also coping. We can support their mental well-being by fostering social connection in a time when distancing has become the new normal.
With an internet connection, novelty, and creativity, we can find options for little ones to stay connected with their friends, share laughs, and play.
The biggest connection, at the end of the day, is the one we cultivate at home. Finding a connection with friends can boost a child’s mood and provides a sense of normalcy, and parents can be facilitators as well as the most meaningful connection for children.