Pandemic Parenting – Will the Kids Be Okay Socially?

A parent shares understandable concerns about the effects of social distancing and isolation on her toddler’s social development. Janet replies with reassuring observations about how children develop social intelligence and offers 5 tips for nurturing social-emotional health through this difficult time.

Transcript of “Pandemic Parenting – Will the Kids Be Okay Socially?”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury, welcome to Unruffled. Today, I’m responding to a question that I realized is actually the one I’ve received most since the pandemic began. It’s about our children’s social skills, their social intelligence. Is this being harmed by the isolation that we’ve all, or many of us, have had to deal with?

Okay, here’s the note I received on Instagram:

Hi, Janet. I’m reaching out to see if you’ve touched upon the current isolations our toddlers are having because of COVID. I have a 20-month-old that has basically had little to no interaction with other kids, and I worry about it. I also try not to be concerned, knowing he is still under two, but I just wanted to know if you have spoken on this. Thank you so much.

So, no, I don’t think I have spoken directly about this, and as I said, it’s the question I’ve received most since the pandemic.

The short answer I have is that the kids will be all right, that they will not be harmed in any major way by this pause in peer socializing, and maybe extended family socializing as well. And others who study child development have said the same — that primarily children learn social behaviors through their primary caregivers, through the relationships they have with us as their parents. And this begins quite early with eye contact, communication, and then children beginning to verbalize and understand what we’re communicating.

Social learning is, as I’ve often said, probably one of the most complicated, nuanced types of learning. It’s quite different than learning multiplication tables or something that’s measurable. In the beginning, of course, there are these signs that children are on track, but as they get older, there is a wide, wide range of normal. Temperament comes into play — we have extroverts and introverts — so there isn’t a specific timetable when children should be achieving X, Y, Z, beyond those early couple of years when children are just starting to show that they are becoming able communicators.

So I would love to take this possible stressor off of parents’ list for now, since there are many reasons to be concerned in life, and this is not going to be a major problem.

However, there are things that we can do. And I would recommend all these things anyway, but perhaps they’re even more important in pandemic times when there is more isolation and less opportunity for children to practice their social skills with peers and extended family. And so I looked back on a piece that I’d written couple of years ago, called “4 Best Ways to Raise Children With Social Intelligence,” and I noticed that, as I thought, there’s only one of these ways that’s about children practicing with other children, the rest of them are about primary relationships.

For example, the first one is, “Don’t wait to communicate, start speaking with your baby, beginning a two-way conversation right away,” and that doesn’t mean we just start talking about the weather and hope that our child will respond, it means talking about pertinent things, letting them know when we’re doing something with them, what we’re doing step-by-step. “I’m going to pick you up now, and now we’ll go over to change your diaper. Now it’s time for the bath, there’s the warm water.” So we will be communicating about meaningful things, so your child understands that this is an important tool that helps you to feel connected to not only the other person, but your life and your world.

Now, there are some fancy names that people call it: “serve and return,” and how important this is. But the approach I teach, we’ve been talking about this all along, and it has been controversial for some people, this notion that a baby can understand our words. Well, they can understand if we talk to them. If we don’t, and then we suddenly start talking later, then they’re not going to understand. But children do learn, they’re ready to absorb language right away.

We don’t have to worry about serving and returning if we focus on: Oh, this is actually a person.  And if I were in that position where I couldn’t tell you what I needed, tell you what I wanted, and I couldn’t go do it myself, get it myself, what would I want? I would want someone to tell me what’s going on so that I can anticipate what’s happening next, so that I can understand where I fit, and feel supported and respected.

So this is just one of the many ways that perceiving a person from the beginning simplifies and clarifies our job, and we don’t have to worry about all these details: Oh gosh, am I talking the right way? when we speak naturally.

The other way that we will communicate is through observing our child. So our child is just waking up, having a moment of “play,” and we notice they’re looking at something near their bed or in their room, and we can comment on that. We try not to be interruptive — sometimes waiting for our baby to look at us is a good signal, but we can join our baby there and show them that we think we see what they’re looking at, and we’re interested in them, and we see them.

So again, this approach of seeing a person already means we are going to be sharing so much more language with our child, communicating so much more than if we were counting words or serving and returning.

It feels very awkward at first, or it did for me, that I’m talking to someone that isn’t talking back. But soon you notice that there are responses, you notice that they are understanding. They can’t do that until you start. So we’ve got to start. Then children will show you that they’re listening from very young, and they’re starting to understand.

Again, we never have to worry about language lessons or making ways to connect with our child, it all happens organically because of what we see. So much of this approach is about the way that we see, and this is the first way that we need to see — that we see a person, a thinking person with their own path in life, their own interests, with a point of view that’s valid that we want to understand.

And yes, we want to speak a little more slowly, but we still want to use the kind of wording and the tone that we want our child to learn rather than baby talk, because again, what we teach is what they will learn.

Then there’s this wonderful quote from Magda Gerber, probably one of her most profound:

“What parents teach is themselves as models of what is human, by their moods, their reactions, their facial expressions and actions. These are the real things parents need to be aware of, and of how they affect their children. Allow them to know you, and it might become easier for them to learn about themselves.”

Yes, allowing them to know us, and showing them that we want to know them. That connection is what children need. They don’t need to play with other children to be able to understand how to be with other people, they just need to be able to connect with one person, or maybe there are two people or three people, but that’s all they need — a deep connection with one person.

And they don’t need this connection all day long, because this is another common question that I receive, and it seems to be more important right now, since the pandemic. Parents are trying to work from home, and they really need their children to be occupied, and maybe they don’t want to use screens, or at least not use them that often. “I can’t get my child to play. I have to play with them all the time, or have them be entertained in front of a screen.”

There’s a process around this that I recommend, and have talked about in other podcasts, and definitely in written posts on my website, maybe I’ll list some of them at the end here. It is not our job to be connecting with our child constantly, but we can nurture their self-directed play, and it can happen for long periods eventually when they are not too tired, when they’re not too hungry.

And the times that are most important to connect, and maybe some days they’re the only time that we connect, is during feedings, diaper changes, bathing, dressing, these times of intimacy, utilizing those times to connect, and then doing it 100%, so that our child feels that sometimes they take precedence over everything else.

If we tend to be kind of half-there because we’re… we’ve got our phone, or we’re always distracted, or we’re in the middle of work and we feel like we need to play with our child, but we’re not really into it and we’re kind of resenting them in that moment, then our child doesn’t get that quality connection that can sustain them and fuel them to be creating their play.

So the second point I had in this post is “Be a top model,” because as Magda says, that’s what we’re teaching all the time. Whether we want to be or not, we’re teaching ourselves. We’re not teaching “gentle!” when we’re behaving in a way that’s not gentle, when we’re trying to intervene that way. We’re not teaching self-regulation when we’re saying, “Calm down!” We really have to walk the talk, and that’s very challenging as well, and we’re not going to be perfect. But the good news is that we can repair, we can apologize, explain. “I did that, I think, because the dog has been so needy today and getting into everything, and when you did that, I lost my temper. And sorry, I didn’t mean to do that.”

Being honest, being direct.

And having those boundaries, going back to the play, that honesty when we say, “You want me to play with you, I hear you, I need to do this right now.” I’m not trying to distract you, I’m not trying to pull you into some game that I’ve created for you to get you involved, I’m just being clear about what I’m doing.

A parent asked me this recently, “What do you do if you’ve told your child…” And in this case, the parent was telling the child, “This is your time to do your thing.” I wouldn’t even say that, I would just say, “This is what I’m doing.” But then she said that her child was following her around and just staring at her and standing near whatever she was doing. What should she do?

So that’s a common next step that the child is taking towards being able to play on their own. What they’re doing right there is checking: Are they comfortable with this boundary? Are they going to be comfortable if I’m not doing what they want me to do as the child, if I’m just following and staying there? Of course, this isn’t thought out on our child’s part, but it comes from that impulse of checking: Does she mean this, or am I going to be able to undo this with my pushing?

So what I would tell this parent, or any parent in this situation, and I’ve done this myself, is just carry on with what you’re doing. Notice your child. We don’t want to ignore. “You want to stand there with me? Okay.” And keep going. This is the way you teach them about other people, that they don’t always give you what you want, that people aren’t there to keep you happy and give you what you think you want all the time. We take care of what you need, of course, but sometimes you’re going to be frustrated, sometimes you’re going to be disappointed. Sometimes you’re going to have to go through an uncomfortable struggle of not knowing what to do with yourself, being bored because the other person said “No.” Such important learning that goes on there.

So we have to hold our ground comfortably. And we can acknowledge, “Yeah, it’s really hard when you want me to play and I’m doing my work. I hear you. You can hang out as long as you want.”

We don’t even have to say that part about “You can hang out as long as you want,” we can just show children that we’re not going to be ruffled by that. I mean, the reason we get ruffled is because we feel guilty about the boundary, right? We feel: Oh, we shouldn’t have done that and he’s lonely, and it’s COVID and he doesn’t have friends to play with…  And we talk ourselves out of it, right?

But for children, they’re just looking for that clarity, and to be able to be sad and lonely maybe, and all of those things.

And that’s another thing I want to bring up in terms of children not being able to socialize when they’re isolated. It’s okay for them to experience, in fact, I would say it’s healthy for them to experience that sometimes you’re lonely. It’s that cliché: we’re in a crowded room and we feel alone. We feel disconnected. It’s a feeling, a very human feeling.

Now, we don’t want our child to feel like that all day long, that’s why we’re going to provide connection at least in those intervals, and even the connection of saying, “I’m not doing what you want me to do right now, and you seem to have feelings about that. Yeah.”  Just those acknowledgements. And then we go back to whatever we’re doing. That’s connecting too.

So all that our children need is to feel seen, heard, and accepted for who they are, and that we’re interested in who they are. But we’re not interested 24 hours a day, we’re interested in our work too, and we can let go of them. It’s okay with us if they object to that and they’re mad about it. That’s what a boundary is. A boundary is that I am asserting what I need to do, or what I see as safe for you, or what’s okay with me. A boundary isn’t something that our child needs to agree to. Oftentimes, they won’t, they won’t because they need to go through this process of letting go.

So maybe in this instance with the child wanting to play with the mom, maybe he gets really mad because she ends up being okay with him following her and it doesn’t intimidate her, it doesn’t bother her, and she still at least shows that she’s going to keep doing what she’s doing, with love, not with anger or annoyance. And then he starts screaming and has a whole meltdown right there maybe, and that’s what needed to happen for him.

And how often have we seen this? Those of us that’ve bit the bullet and let our children have meltdowns, how often have we seen them at the end of that, all of a sudden, he’s playing? Maybe it’s not the kind of play that we thought he was going to do, but he’s staring out the window and watching who knows what. It can look very mundane what children do.

The other thing about us having boundaries and them having that play is that is also where they will work through their loneliness. They will actually learn and develop their social skills through play a lot of the time.

I remember one of my daughters… This one time I was teaching at RIE, and she was, I think, around five, and she had to be there with me. So she was on the other side of where all the children were, and she was sitting there, but she could see them, and all of a sudden, I look over and she was talking, which I love when children talk to themselves in their play, and when they stop doing that, it’s… For me, it’s really sad, because there’s just something so sweet and comforting about children being involved in their imaginary play and they’re verbalizing. And she was making a story and dolls out of paperclips.

Children will do that, they will have this therapeutic social learning experience with their play if it belongs to them. If we’re not directing it, and not getting too involved, they do that. It’s this therapeutical tool that they have. So even when we’re not with our child and our child isn’t with other kids, they can develop socially.

But yes, of course we have to acknowledge that this is a loss for them. Yes, it is, it is a loss. For us, it’s even more of a loss, because in other times we can imagine what could be going on, which they can’t so much, they’re pretty much in the moment of: This is what I’m doing. And, I want to see my friend, maybe if they’re older than this child, this child is only 20 months.But if they’re a little bit older, “I want to see my friends and I can’t, I’m sad about that,” or “I miss them.”

But children generally tend to be much more accepting than we are. For us, we lose out on seeing them shine together, seeing the… For me, I loved having children come over and play, sometimes without their parents, because then they would feel freer to be in conflict, and they’d be arguing so hard one minute, and the next minute, the girls… I remember my daughter with her friends, all of a sudden, they’re combing each other’s hair and they’re doing this most gentle thing, after this huge knock-down, drag-out argument over toys or something. I loved all of that, I relished it. Or even just knowing my child was off having adventures somewhere with other children, it’s a great feeling.

So I think it will help to acknowledge that this is a loss for us. Our child isn’t as easily occupied as when they’re with a friend. They have a friend over, then it’s easy for them to start playing, right? Alone, sometimes it can be a little bit harder for them, they go through a little more of a transition. So we miss it, and sometimes we are projecting that out a little bit, and therefore making it harder for us to have boundaries and be clear about our 100% connecting when we’re connecting, and then saying, “No, I can’t hang with you now,” and trusting that it’s okay for our child to be lonely and say they’re sad, and say they miss certain people. Such wonderful opportunities for social-emotional healthy development, feeling sad, missing somebody, feeling lonely.

But if these are all stressors for us because we feel our own feelings about the situation, or we just feel that our child can’t handle those feelings, then it’s going to be harder. Because speaking of being a model, what children need from us during a difficult time like this, or a time of crisis, is that sign that we are going to be all right, that we believe it’s going to be all right, and our stress is compartmentalized or minimal as possible. “Compartmentalized” meaning for children, they know, because we’ve shared with them, “Your grandma’s not well, and that’s worrying me right now.”

So that’s what our children need most, to know that we’re okay. They care more about us being okay than they care about anything. We’re their baseline, we’re their foundation.

So that’s why I want to take this particular stressor off parents’ plates, because what children really need is for us to be less stressed. And also because I really believe this is true, that children will… Whatever catching up means, that they will catch up as soon as they are back again with other children. Other kids will have had this little gap too. And they’re just all going to keep progressing and growing in their learning about themselves and each other. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, there’ll be such joy to be able to connect again. Or for some children that are as young as this child, to taste that, taste what it’s like to watch what other children are doing and see where we fit with them and how we can fit with them, and how can we join, do we want to even join with them, or would we rather play on our own and watch? All of those experiences are going to come, and they’ll be that much sweeter.

So to summarize the thoughts I’ve shared here:

  1. If at all possible, let go of this worry, (and any other situation that’s out of your control, by the way), and maybe replace that worry with trust and faith in your child.
  2. Nurture the relationship, the connection that you have as two whole people with your child, forging an honest, trusting connection.
  3. Set boundaries with empathy and confidence.
  4. Cultivate your child’s therapeutic self-directed play as much as possible.
  5. Lastly, encourage children to express, and normalize for yourself, any feelings your child has. It’s okay for them to feel all those things.

So I hope some of that helps and eases your mind. And I’m not the only one saying these things, by the way, so you don’t have to just take it from me. Thank you for trusting me with your questions, and I hope this helps.

Here are some of the written posts and podcasts I’ve shared on nurturing self-directed play:

4 Best Ways to Raise Children With Social Intelligence

Stop Entertaining Your Toddler (in 3 Steps)

Help! My Toddler Can’t Play Without Me

A Creative Alternative to Baby TV Time

Infant Play – Great Minds at Work

Encouraging Kids to Play by Themselves

The Power of Play Therapy (and 4 Ways to Encourage It)

It’s Really Okay to Say No to Playing With Your Child

Kickstarting Your Child’s Learning and Play at Home

Please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in.

And both of my books are available on audio, please check them out. Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting and No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame. You can even get them for free from Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast, or you can go to the books section of my website and find them there. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon, and in ebook at Amazon, Barnes And Noble, and

Thanks so much for listening. We can do this!



Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Thank you for giving us this assurance. This article actually brought me to this question of what’s happening lately with my 9 months old baby. He seems to get very upset or scared? of big laughs among adult conversation lately. Every time when he hears adult laughing loud , he would start crying. He doesn’t seem to have the same reaction toward to his older sister screaming, laughing with her friends ( 8 years olds..). So that makes me wonder if it has something to do with the tone of voice (adult voice, including his own father) that surprise him? I assure him that we are just having fun and maybe that voice scars him, if so, we’ll try to keep it down… but I wonder if you have any other suggestions.. as his father’s laugh is naturally pretty loud and i can’t ask him to change nor I should.. I would appreciate your thoughts on this very much!!

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