The beginning of lockdown was a shock to the system for everybody, but especially for our children. Practically overnight, we uprooted their established routines because of a pandemic that many of them weren’t equipped to understand. They were stuck at home, unable to see their teachers, friends or extended family. And though schools are (for now at least) back to something like a normal routine, it’s too early to know what the long-term effects of social isolation will have on their development.
What is social isolation?
People often talk about social isolation and loneliness as if they’re the same thing, but they’re actually subtly different
. Loneliness is an internal feeling; you could be in the middle of a crowd of people and still feel lonely. Social isolation, on the other hand, occurs when a person has very few people that they’re in contact with on a daily basis, and this can turn to loneliness. It’s important to remember that different people need different levels of social interaction - some like to have dozens of friends, while others have a handful of friends that they’re extremely close to.
Technology can definitely help reduce social isolation - many of us have turned to video calls and virtual hangouts as a way to keep in touch with friends and family - but it’s not the perfect solution. One problem is that not everybody has equal access to technology, and an unstable internet connection can make it difficult to maintain our connections with other people.
How can it affect children?
Humans are social animals, and our bodies actually push us
to seek out contact with other humans. When we’re stressed, our brains release a hormone called cortisol
- too much of which can have all sorts of unpleasant effects on your body. On the other hand, interacting with other people causes our brains to make oxytocin
(sometimes called the love hormone), which can help to reduce stress levels.
It’s also been shown that loneliness in adults is linked to mental health issues like anxiety and depression - so preventing children from feeling social isolation or loneliness could be the key to protecting them against these issues as they get older.
What can parents do to help children deal with self-isolation?
There’s little evidence to suggest that the few months of lockdown we experienced earlier this year will have a major impact on most children’s development. But if bubbles burst again, or we have another national lockdown, the consequences could be more serious. So how do we make sure parents are best-equipped to support their children?
- Give them opportunities to play
Play is one of the most important tools that children have for understanding the world around them - it can help them to develop physically, socially, emotionally and intellectually. Role play is especially important for younger children, so it’s important to give children the space and the tools to ‘pretend’ and use their imaginations. Try playing together as a family - whether it’s a good old-fashioned game of Scrabble or a few hours spent building a house in Minecraft!
- Be a little more lenient with screen time
We’re not suggesting that children stay up with their iPads until after midnight, but screens are the best tool a lot of children have right now for keeping in touch with people outside of their bubble. Just make sure that everything they’re doing with their devices counts as active screen time rather than passive.
- Get outside (if you can)
Outdoor play and exercise can help stimulate children and remove some anxiety. We understand that not everybody has access to outdoor spaces, but if you have a back garden or a park near your home and you feel comfortable going outside, get some fresh air! It may sound obvious, but a change of atmosphere can have a huge impact on your mental wellbeing.
- Go easy on yourselves
Children are looking to the trusted adults in their lives for answers right now, but there are no easy answers to the situation we’re in. Everybody’s dealing with a huge amount of uncertainty and stress, so don’t beat yourself up if you have an off day. Being open and honest about it, and being kind to ourselves, is the best example we can set right now.
If you’re looking for advice on how to look after your child’s mental wellbeing, or struggling with your own, the mental health charity Mind has all kinds of information and support that’s free to use.