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By Riikka Melartin, Psy.D.
I thought it might be helpful to address some common issues that I have been hearing from parents in a question and answer format.
I feel bad that my six-month-old has not been not seeing other kids or really even other adults than her two parents these last few months. Will it affect her negatively?
While infants do love to interact with people and seem to especially react to other babies, their main and most important social bond is with their caregivers. The fact that you and your spouse have been taking turns being with her has provided with plenty of human interaction, as well as a secure bonding experience with each of you. One wouldn’t expect any negative effects on her from this experience.
How the quarantine will affect my toddler’s separation anxiety, as I’ve have noticed some regression?
As you think about going back to work after working from home for several months, you probably experience some unease and anxiety yourself. This is because we are creatures of habit, who become used to whatever is the norm in our lives. If your child has seen only their parents for a while, it will be natural to be shier and more anxious when their social world begins to expand again. This is a normal reaction, and most likely will abate with time and patience. Try to introduce new people slowly, for short periods of time. If and when your child goes back to daycare, take your time in getting them adjusted again, bringing them in for a few hours with you present, and building up their comfort level.
Remember, familiarity breeds comfort. And expect regression, without shaming the child or suggesting they need to be a “big” boy or girl – sometimes playing baby is a way to capture feelings of safety and comfort at a time of change. And for all of us, times of stress can make us forget our best coping skills and become more primitive. In the case of toddlers, this might mean quicker tears, more clinging, and more tantrums.
Will the quarantine will affect my toddler’s social skills?
Kids do learn by playing, so it may well be that between the increased stranger anxiety and separation anxiety mentioned above, your child may not be as used to playing with other children as before when they do eventually get back with others. However, as parents, you too can play with your child. Pretend you’re a two-year-old: what does your child like to do? How do they behave? What makes them giggle? Social skills develop partly through doing (interacting with others) and partly through modeling (watching how others behave.) Playing peek-a-boo, doing simple games with turns (putting on a silly hat, making a toy “fly” etc.) are interactive activities that will be helping your child practice the same skills they would be with other toddlers. Saying “thank you” and “please,” in exaggerated, fun ways when giving and receiving objects from your child, reinforcing “we don’t grab other’s toys” etc. are ways to explicitly model and reinforce social skills and behaviors that you value, the way day care providers and teachers would. Reading simple books and watching age-appropriate videos where social interactions are modeled also provide good modeling.
I feel guilty that that I have only one child since they don’t have a playmate while quarantined.
First, try to let go of the guilt. Your priority has been your child’s and others’ safety, which is laudable. But yes, it can be easier to have more than one child during the quarantine, so they can keep each other company, fights and all. Besides trying to find playtime yourself with your child (see above,) you can encourage imaginative play using Facetime or Zoom calls with peers (both children can be playing with their dolls or action figures.) Calls and videos just to chat briefly can provide distraction and maintain social ties during quarantine. Older children can experiment with making short movies or reading books online that can be shared with younger children.
If you have a pet, that already provides a lot of companionship and interest for your child. If you don’t have a pet, depending on your circumstances and the age of the child, you may consider getting one (at least to start, something less demanding and long-lived than a dog or a cat): a lizard or turtle tank can give the child a project to set up and creatures to care for and feed, a gerbil, hamster or guinea pig provides the same, and offers a little more interaction and opportunity for affectionate petting.
Finally, solitary time and play are valuable in themselves, and during these months your child will be increasing their ability to tolerate boredom, create their own fun, and use their imaginations unfettered by the demands of a play-partner. You can foster this by providing a lot of materials that can be used for crafts or for making make believe objects and creatures (for younger children, these can be daily objects like pillows, egg cartons, paper bags, shoe boxes, branches and leaves — you don’t have to necessarily spend money.) You may be able to have a slightly older child learn simple skills and do knitting, woodworking, pottery or cooking projects. Finally, depending on your own level of risk-aversion and the advice of your pediatrician, you may be able to identify another family who is also socially isolating and taking safety precautions, and have a “quaran-team” where your children play together. I have seen several families where just having that extra bit of social interaction and mutual help makes an enormous difference in everyone’s stress level and daily enjoyment of life. Whatever you decide to do, remember that this situation is temporary, that your child is developing other skills during this time, and that they will eventually have more playmates available.
Riikka Melartin, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who provides individual therapy, counseling, and consultation for clients who are diverse in age, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Until recently, she also worked as a school psychologist. Look for her monthly blog post about child & adolescent therapy on www.commpsych.com.
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