Now that playdates and large parties are once again allowed, some parents and caregivers are expressing concerns with the impact of physical distancing on their children’s development. Whether it’s visiting a friend’s home or attending a birthday bash out in the park, these fun experiences may feel overwhelming for young children, especially those under six years of age. For some, these gatherings will be their first in over a year.
Experts say it’s important to pay closer attention to your little ones during these new social interactions.
“Caregivers can observe how their children are interacting with others in these new social settings,” says Dr. Anamaria Richardson, a Vancouver-based pediatrician.
“It’s important to let children express their emotions and listen in a non-judgmental way. During this time, it’s most important for parents and caregivers to be present, not perfect. You know your child best, and you can trust your gut.”
While being in these new situations may be stressful for some children, Dr. Richardson notes it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“Not all stress is bad stress. Small challenges help children cope with bigger ones. There are numerous opportunities in every child’s life to experience manageable stress – and with the help of supportive adults, this “positive stress” can be growth-promoting.”
Children learn from making mistakes and trying again. Your positive response to those mistakes reinforces this process. Praise your child not only for their successes, but also for their willingness to try different things.
In the early years, your child's social and emotional health is every bit as important as their physical health. It impacts how they express emotions, deal with stress, develop friendships, and helps to determine their connections to the world around them through stories, conversations and play.
Michelle Horn is a mother of two young kids, and a program manager with BC Children's Hospital Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre. In a few weeks, she's planning the first visit with her kids' grandparents in over a year – a big moment after a long time apart.
Michelle says if your child is feeling stressed or anxious in new situations, physical touch like holding, hugging or cuddling your little one can help.
"Healthy touch is an essential part of healthy child development. From birth, physical contact between caregiver and child promotes brain development, creates attachment, and helps children feel more secure and connected to you. It also supports their development and helps to build their brain."
Paying attention to your child's feelings in new social situations, and talking about them, is also important. It can ease their anxieties in the moment, and also help them learn how to express and process feelings, which helps children grow into emotionally healthy adults.
"Social and emotional development starts early. From recognizing emotions to just talking and hugging, small things make a big difference," says Michelle.
"Research shows that long-term, fostering early social and emotional development in the early years leads to healthy brain development, success in school, increased community involvement, and even success in future employment."
The need to foster healthy social and emotional development in young kids became more evident when the COVID-19 pandemic first kicked off in the spring of 2020. Based on evidence from early childhood development, a provincial group of B.C. organizations and experts got to work to develop resources for parents and caregivers. The result: the Feelings First social media campaign.
"Families told us they needed more information about ways to better support their children in the early years, especially during the challenging time of COVID-19," says Sana Fakih, provincial lead of early years health & wellness at Child Health BC. "The Feelings First campaign was created based on research and feedback from parents and caregivers. It's had great results so far, with more than 60 organizations involved."
With short, simple messages like "It feels good to talk about feelings" and "Routines relieve stress," the campaign has reached thousands of parents and caregivers with nearly 1 million impressions online.
"This is just a first step in what we hope to do in B.C.," says Sana. "We hope families can use these messages to help their young children enjoy visiting with friends and relatives this summer and beyond."
For more information on the campaign, go to www.feelingsfirst.ca or follow @Feelingsfirst.ca on social media.