When I first found out I was pregnant, I had a lot of dreams about how my baby and I would socialize during our first year together. I pictured play dates, trips to the library, fun at the zoo, and traveling to see all of our family. Of course, COVID had other plans. Most parents I have spoken to have expressed concern that the changes made to our social lives throughout the pandemic will have negative impacts on our children’s overall social functioning later in life. Many people have questioned whether their children will develop forms of depression or anxiety as a result of a lack of socialization during the pandemic.

This is a reasonable concern given that most of our children’s brain development happens in the first two years of life and our babies will live most of this period in quarantine. We cannot know for sure that our babies will be completely unaffected by the global events of the first years of their lives. However, research has shown that there are things we can do to continue to teach our babies social skills and help foster resilience.

Fostering Resilience

Research conducted on children in traumatic circumstances indicates that children are best able to avoid future problems by learning the coping skills needed to develop resilience. Resilience develops by learning how to cope with emotions in a safe and secure environment.

A Safe and Secure Environment

Typically, this environment is created by caregivers who model safe and emotionally appropriate behavior for the children in their care. In the midst of the pandemic, this means that our babies have needed to know that we loved them, supported them, and cared for their needs.

  • They learned how to cope with their challenging emotions by watching us respond to these emotions.
  • They also watched how we expressed emotion and processed them.

Caring For Ourselves

In order to care for these emotions, we need to learn how to take care of ourselves first. Taking care of ourselves means giving ourselves the space to acknowledge what we’re feeling. This can be through:

  • Exercise
  • Journaling
  • Processing verbally with others
  • Taking the time to shower or nap

We can then (1) identify our emotions and (2) show our child the appropriate response. When we feel happy, we laugh. When we feel sad, we give ourselves room to cry. When we need help, we ask someone who can help meet that need. At the same time, we learn our baby’s needs and respond to them quickly. Along the way, our babies learn that all of their emotions are valid. They also learn how to cope in social situations—even the anxiety-inducing ones.

How To Teach Your Baby Social Skills

Modeling

Spend time with your baby showing them a variety of facial expressions. This is especially helpful in a mirror. Name the different emotions as your face changes. As your child grows, model naming their feelings for them. For example, “you’re feeling scared right now because you’re not used to talking to new people.”

When your baby is around people wearing masks, talk to them about what’s happening, especially if they seem confused by missing social cues. You can still name emotions, even if you can’t see someone’s face.

Reading and Music

Children learn language through repetition. The most common ways to do this are by reading to your baby and playing music for them. It may be maddening to listen to “Baby Shark” while you’re trying to work from home, but the repetition is helping your child learn how to speak. (Yes, that earworm of a song actually has educational value.)

Reading to your child also helps them learn words, patterns of speech, and inflection. Even if you’re not able to expose your child to other people, these tools can help you continue their language development skills at home.

Interactions With Their Community

I still remember how sad I felt the day I realized that my daughter was more excited to talk to people on screens than she was to talk to live people wearing masks. We’re told to limit screen time, but many of us made the exception for our babies to be able to see extended family members and friends. By allowing our children to interact with others on the screen, we’ve allowed them to learn from others and practice communication in a way that will become increasingly more important to our society. We’re also helping them become more familiar with the faces and voices they will meet when they enter the “real” world.

It’s completely valid to worry that the social isolation of the pandemic will negatively impact our babies. We’ve never faced this kind of moment in society, so it is hard to know what to expect. However, if you’re focusing on your child’s needs and teaching them social skills, you can feel confident that you’re giving them the best chance at coping with challenges later in life.

Elise Champanhet is a Mental Health Therapist seeing individuals seeking physical, emotional, and mental wellness at Optimum Joy Clinical Counseling in the Greater Chicago Area.

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