May 04th, 2020

Physical isolation shouldn’t mean social isolation

In Australia, where I am sitting out the pandemic, schools are re-opening gradually in some states. In the UK there is talk of primary schools going back on 1st June. Reactions to that possibility will differ according to people’s different experiences of at-home learning during lockdown, their need to work themselves and anxieties about the degree of risk posed to physical health by reopening schools. Of course parents, teachers and authorities are concerned about the impact on our children’s education by keeping them away from face to face learning. But another important factor is the loss of social interaction they are experiencing at potentially formative times in their lives for acquiring and practising social skills.

Human beings are social animals and our brains are wired for social interactions which are essential for our wellbeing. Much of our brain evolution has occurred because of our social nature. We’ve all missed being able to engage with our friends and there has quite rightly been a lot of concern about the effect of loneliness on our mental wellbeing. The body perceives social isolation as a threat to a basic human need and it triggers a stress response but if stress hormones remain at elevated levels for too long they can increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, elevated blood pressure, infectious illness and cognitive deterioration. So not having friends around is bad for our health.

But our children are likely to suffer even more than us as a result of this time of reduced social contact. Younger children do most of their learning through play with others and engagement with their peers in early years’ settings is crucial for learning the social skills that are the foundation for all their future relationships. Cathrine Neilsen-Hewett, Associate Professor at the Early Start centre at the University of Wollongong, says. “Ninety per cent of their brain is developed by the time they reach five years old. Missing out on early education experiences is going to have a bigger impact than, say, missing out on year 4.” Friendship skills develop over time so the over fives are still fine-tuning their social skills. When children play with and learn alongside others they learn these vital skills for life:

  • Developing an understanding of themselves
  • Communication skills – expressing their needs, opinions and feelings
  • Empathy and perspective-taking – understanding how others think and feel through language and non-verbal cues. Appreciating other points of view enables them to think more widely which helps their cognitive development generally and contributes to academic success
  • Collaboration -how to work with others, problem-solving and sharing and awareness of implied social rules
  • Conflict resolution – negotiation and compromise

Our teens are also suffering disproportionately from social deprivation as in this period of development social interaction is of profound importance. In their excellent book ‘The Incredible Teenage Brain’ Bettina Hohnen, Jane Gilmour and Tara Murphy explain that in adolescence social pain is experienced as strongly as physical pain. Some teens will have actually appreciated an opportunity to be away from the school setting if that has been a place of discomfort for them, either academically or socially. Introverts may have relished a home-learning environment that suited them better but even these young people are expressing a yearning to be back amongst their peers.

While we can’t have playdates just now there are things that parents can do to help our young children develop the social skills they need and to give older children the chance to practice these vital skills while in physical isolation and to facilitate non-physical social contact for our teens.

The following are social skills that all children need which can be practised in different ways at home:

  • Making eye contact
  • Taking turns and sharing resources/belongings
  • Respecting personal space
  • Using please and thank you’s
  • Conversation skills:
    • Knowing how to start and end conversations appropriately
    • Waiting until someone else has finished speaking before saying your piece
    • Adding to conversation in relevant ways (ie understanding what the main thread of the conversation is)
    • Making conversations two-way, ie about topics of interest to both participants with both parties participating equally
    • Asking relevant and open-ended questions to sustain the conversation
    • Listening in order to learn and showing interest in the other’s contributions (Yes, some of the adults could benefit from revisiting these skills)
  • Receptive language skills –understanding subtleties like jokes, sarcasm, idiom
  • Non-verbal language skills –interpreting body language, tone of voice and facial expressions
  • Being willing to ask for clarification if confused
  • Being able to regulate emotions such as anger, disappointment, frustration. 

Try to facilitate contact with friends using video based technologies but these have their limits for younger children. Littlies will need a lot of direction and perhaps setting up a shared activity like Play-doh so they can play ‘alongside’ each other. Older children can manage better with this form of contact. Teens may need more latitude in their access to the various platforms via which they can make contact with their peers.

You can also help your children to hone their social skills at home using the following techniques according to age and inclination:

  • Play with your child. Playing board and card games helps develop attention, turn-taking, following social and game rules and emotional regulation through modelling. Don’t let them win all the time and do talk about how failure is inevitable until we learn more skills which develop with practice. Playing ‘parlour’ games like Simple Simon develops listening and cooperation skills. Imaginative play develops creativity, cooperation and turn-taking. Older children will also benefit from playing games together as sharing positive time opens up the possibility of conversation
  • Role plays can also be used to figure out solutions to social conundrums and to practice how to respond, say when someone teases you
  • Acknowledge your child’s emotions –this models empathy and develops emotional regulation
  • Read books and watch films and TV programs with emotional content and use them as a springboard for discussion about feelings and dealing with social problems. Watching without audio teaches children to focus on non-verbal cues
  • Use social stories which describe in detail a specific social situation and suggest an appropriate response
  • Practice conversing at mealtimes –maybe use conversation starters like Table Topics
  • Descriptively praise good use of social skills
  • Model conflict resolution with them and with your partner. Just to remind you, that means saying how you feel/what you need without criticism, listening to what the other thinks and feels, and compromising. 

Let’s hope our physical isolation will let up a bit soon and make the most of the time we have for family togetherness.


Posted in: Communication , Coronavirus , Friendships , Social interactions





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