The Playbook for How to Be a Social Kid in the 2021-2022 School Year

Two girls taking a selfie

Verywell / Zackary Angeline

COVID-19 came with major changes to our daily lives that none of us could have imagined. When the virus first appeared, families had to adjust to sheltering in place. We had to find ways to stay connected and keep learning going while staying at home and avoiding unnecessary social contact.

Now that many kids are heading back to school, we are going to have to readjust back to "real life." It won't be automatic. Kids may have to learn or relearn how to handle social interactions and group situations. And since the pandemic is still very present in our lives, they will need to navigate social life around precautions as well.

A return to normalcy, or at least a big step in that direction, will look different for different age groups. Young kids who have spent half or more of their lives sheltering in place may have never been in a group situation. They may have a hard time getting used to a school or daycare setting.

Older kids will need to navigate the intricate social world of peer groups with both safety and respect in mind. And teens will have the added complexity of romantic relationships, social competition, and the dynamics of close friend groups.

Easing Back Into Social Interactions

Teacher and student

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We are all out of practice interacting with others. It will make a big difference to talk to our kids about social skills ahead of time. "Prepare your children for the fact that at the outset, it is likely that social situations may be a bit awkward as everyone regains their social footing," says Jennifer Weber, the director of behavioral health for PM Pediatrics Behavioral Health. "Encourage them to connect with others over this shared awkwardness and not to put too much pressure on themselves to do the 'right' things."

What to Talk About (Besides COVID-19!)

Kids have been hearing and talking about the pandemic so much this past year. Don't forget to remind them that they can talk about other things! "The pandemic will be a hot topic when school opens again,” notes Weber. “However, encourage children to not get stuck here and to be hopeful that there will be other topics and shared experiences on which to strengthen and build relationships in the coming weeks and months.” 

Toddlers and young children who haven't been around other kids outside of their own families for a while need to learn basic social skills. They may need ideas on what to talk about. For example, kids might talk to each other about their family members, pets, or favorite animals.

They also might talk about any summer activities they enjoyed. "Encourage children to reflect on the highlights of their year or their summer in a non-direct way starting now, such as introducing the topic during dinner," suggests Weber. "Then, children will be prepared with some shareable moments they can use to connect to others." Little ones learn concretely, so role-playing social situations at home can also help them prepare.

Tweens and teens may need also need some coaching about how to connect with their peers. They too may benefit from family discussions on what to talk about. Parents may also want to discourage older children from zeroing in on the pandemic too much at school. Controversial topics may not be the best social conversations. It may be better to connect over shared interests. 

What to Do If Your Child Is Anxious

Many kids will be anxious about going back to school. If your child is worried, acknowledging their feelings is a good first step. That will help them feel heard and understood.

Younger children may benefit when parents model coping techniques. "You may state, 'I'm feeling a little funny in my stomach tonight—I think it’s because I have a meeting at work tomorrow and I’m a bit nervous about how it will go,'" Arlene McLean, the founder of Mindful Movers, a yoga and mediation program for elementary school kids, suggests, “You may then want to elicit a joint response such as, 'I think I will try to sit and breathe for one minute, would you like to join me?'" 

Since little ones may struggle to identify their feelings, McLean suggests discussing your own feelings and helping them name theirs. "Young children often have difficulty placing names on their emotions so any guidance we adults can give is a help."

Older children and teens may benefit if parents acknowledge feelings and then elicit a conversation to help them work through them. Leading questions such as, "What worries you most?" or "How can I help?" may aid them in expressing their emotions and figuring out what they need.

How to Talk About the Pandemic

Constant discussion of the pandemic is something to avoid, but we are still going to need to talk about it some of the time. Children do not necessarily grasp the severity of what's going on, even when they hear it on the news or read about it. They may need to be reminded to be sensitive. Parents should bring up the fact that people around their child may have a sick loved one or may have lost a loved one from COVID-19. Teach your child that jokes about this illness are not OK.

Topics around COVID, like vaccines and mask mandates, can be controversial. If you're talking about these things at home in front of your kids, be aware that they may repeat what you say. “In discussing your own beliefs, it is probably safest to assume that what you say aloud in front of them may be shared,” Weber points out.

Handling Physical Interaction

Children wrestling with each other soccer ball on the ground

Verywell / Zackary Angeline

One of the saddest parts of this pandemic is not letting our kids hug each other, hold hands, and play together with too much physical touch. As parents, it's painful to have to say no to or limit this type of affection and interaction.

Every family has to come up with their own comfort level when it comes to physical touch between their children and others. It's also important to keep school guidelines in mind and remember that even if your particular family is not overly concerned about physical proximity or contact, there is a good possibility that their friends’ families may be.

Toddlers and young children can be taught how to respect others' boundaries. The golden rule here is that we always default to the person with the lower comfort level, even if we don't agree with them. So if one person does not want to hold hands but the other does, little ones should be taught to follow the lead of the child who does not want to do it.

If your family is more on the cautious side, Weber suggests role-playing to practice stating boundaries. Practice phrases like:

  • "I would like a little more space, please."
  • "I want to play but only when you wear your mask."
  • "I want to play but I do not feel comfortable holding hands."

Older kids and teens can learn these concepts in a more straightforward way. Explain that they should always default to the person with the lower comfort level and give them a chance to practice expressing their limits firmly but respectfully.

When we talk to children of any age about social distancing, it is important to avoid having a fear-based mentality. We might say, "Keeping our distance will help keep everyone protected," rather than "Don't touch anyone or you'll get sick!" Focusing on staying protected and healthy keeps your language positive and encouraging.

Social Gatherings

Children sitting on large balls

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Social gatherings can be overwhelming for kids who have been socially distanced for the past year and a half. They can be downright scary for toddlers and young children. For this reason, kids should not be forced to attend and they should be allowed to interact with others at their own comfort level. Let them take it slow.

Teens and tweens may not be frightened to socially engage, but it's possible they may feel anxious about it. They may also be ashamed of their feelings, so it is best to avoid making jokes about it.

Some kids won't be worried at all about getting together in groups again. Enthusiastic children need to be aware that plans may change. Infections in classroom groups may mean shutting down school and any related events for two weeks.

Planned gatherings may need to be canceled or rescheduled. This can be a huge letdown for kids of all ages. It is best to prepare them for this very real possibility—being completely surprised by a last-minute cancelation is worse than knowing it might happen. "If possible, create a backup plan," Weber suggests. "You could say, 'If things change and we have to postpone this party like we have had to do in the past, let’s have a stay-in night with a movie and pizza.'"

Older kids and teens may also be encouraged by emphasizing the positive. Remind them that we were not even thinking about planning parties just a few months ago. Things are moving in the right direction.

A Word From Verywell

It's normal for kids to feel both excited and anxious about a return to interacting in person with our communities. Being a little "out of shape" socially is also expected. Some young kids have never even been in a group setting until now. This is a big adjustment for everyone!

Our extroverted children may be chomping at the bit to go back to school and see their friends again, but they may also really struggle with the backward steps we are sure to see on our journey forward. There will be times that class parties need to be canceled or school may even shut down for a period of time.

Kids today are going through something most of us could never have imagined happening. Day to day help and support from families and teachers is what they need most of all.

By Elisa Cinelli
Elisa is a well-known parenting writer who is passionate about providing research-based content to help parents make the best decisions for their families. She has written for well-known sites including POPSUGAR and Scary Mommy, among others.