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How to Help Kids Socialize Safely With Peers When It Is Unavoidable

two middle school girls talking outside


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Key Takeaways

  • The CDC is encouraging schools to reopen this fall, which has some parents wondering how to address socialization in a safe way.
  • The Delta variant has led to a surge in COVID-19 cases nationwide causing major health organizations to recommend social distancing, masks, and safe socialization practices.
  • Parents should go slow when reacclimating their kids to school activities and socialization, keeping safety precautions at the forefront.

Just as schools prepare to open this fall, the Delta variant is fueling another surge in Covid-19 cases, leaving parents in a very familiar predicament—wondering how to send their kids to school and still keep them safe.

Once again, they must grapple with social distancing questions, mask requirements, and the developmental need for kids to socialize. All of this can feel particularly disorienting for parents, especially because the pandemic seemed to be winding down here in the United States.

Add to that the confusion over what precautions vaccinated kids and parents need to take, and it is no wonder parents in the U.S. are scratching their heads about how to go about life in the midst of another upswing in COVID-19 cases.

"In many ways, we are back to where we were," says Danielle Clark, DO, a pediatrician with Muskingum Valley Health Centers. "This is hard for people because we want some type of certainty but there is not any."  

If you find that this describes your situation, check out the guidance and tips provided below. You will find everything you need to know about helping your kids socialize safely this school season.

What the Experts Say

There was a time this spring and early summer when it seemed like the pandemic in the United States might have been fizzling out. As vaccines became available and cases began to fall, Americans became hopeful that the worst might just be behind them. Not long after that, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) even said that fully vaccinated people could take their masks off.

The CDC also urged all schools in the nation to reopen with some safety guidelines, like 3 feet of separation between students, regular cleaning and sanitizing practices, and masks for unvaccinated students. Then, all of a sudden the Delta variant arrived and the tables turned.

Schools—though still reopening—are now revamping their mask and other safety requirements once again, while the CDC has strongly encouraged universal masking. Naturally, this leaves parents wondering how to keep their kids safe while addressing the elephant in the room—the developmental need for kids to socialize with their peers.

"[There is no doubt that] socialization is important for kids," says Ben Bring, DO, a physician specializing in family medicine at OhioHealth Dublin Methodist Hospital. "They learn how to interact with their peers and communicate their feelings. They also learn how to be on a team and work together to accomplish a goal."

But the need for socialization should not take precedence over health and safety, he says. Parents not only need to find ways for their kids to socialize and make friends but also should abide by the CDC's guidelines, which include universal masking indoors and maintaining social distance when together.

How You Can Help

Here are some things you can do to help this process along while still keeping your kids safe.

Be Realistic

When it comes to going back to school and interacting with peers, do not set your expectations too high. Not only are rising COVID-19 cases going to impact your child's ability to hang out with their friends, but also because socializing in person again may be an adjustment, especially if your child's school was all online.

Danielle Clark, DO

Some of my families are saying that they feel weird being around people again or that they don't know how to communicate in bigger groups.

— Danielle Clark, DO

"Some of my families are saying that they feel weird being around people again or that they don't know how to communicate in bigger groups," says Dr. Clark.

These are normal reactions to have after being socially distanced for so long. The key is that you recognize that learning to interact with people again is going to take some practice. Communicate with your kids on a regular basis and brainstorm on how to approach situations that make them uncomfortable or uncertain.

"I tell my families to go low and slow when it comes to socializing again," says Dr. Bring. "Have conversations ahead of time and work on practicing good communication skills at home."

You also can brainstorm conversation starters and roleplay prior to the start of the school year. Talk about what they might see at school and how to interact with their friends safely. Also, listen to their concerns and validate their feelings. With good communication, you can work through the challenges together.

Choose Activities Wisely

Because COVID-19 cases are climbing right now, parents need to be mindful of the types of social activities their kids are involved in. For instance, look for opportunities that are outside or that provide limited exposure.

Ben Bring, DO

The way the spread is right now, I would avoid poorly ventilated spaces and do as many outdoor activities as you can. I am still a little skittish about young, unvaccinated kids [being around a lot of people inside].

— Ben Bring, DO

Whether that's participating in a sport, going to a park, or grabbing ice cream from a street vendor, there are lots of safe ways for kids to socialize safely.

"I'm a big fan of kids playing sports, especially outside," says Dr. Bring. "Regardless of whether they play long-term or short-term, sports allow them to get involved in physical activity. They learn to support a team and determine their role. Parents can start simple with community sports like soccer or flag football."

Meanwhile, if you are arranging playdates outside, you should stick to one or two friends at a time. Also, do not try to do everything at once or make up for the lost time. Gradually ease your kids back into their activities and time with peers and try to adhere to the CDC's guidelines.

"The way the spread is right now, I would avoid poorly ventilated spaces and do as many outdoor activities as you can. I am still a little skittish about young, unvaccinated kids [being around a lot of people inside]," he says.

Get Creative

One thing that the pandemic has forced people to do is to get creative when it comes to socializing with others. There have been virtual birthday parties, movie nights, and even sleepovers. So, as the country takes a step back from its quest for normalcy, it is important for parents to get creative with how their kids socialize.

Sit down and brainstorm some fun things they can do with their friends that do not involve being in enclosed spaces right now, says Dr. Bring. For instance, if your child is into video games or on a sports team, they can hold different types of challenges, record them, and then share them with the group. This type of thing keeps kids communicating, even if it is just through a program like FaceTime or Zoom.

Refrain From Pushing

While it is true that kids are generally excited to get back to school and see their peers, do not be surprised if you discover your child is dreading the social interactions that take place in the school environment.

Having these types of anxieties or concerns after being apart from their peers for so long is not that uncommon. If you find your child is reluctant to socialize or needs to decompress after school rather than hang out with friends, do not try to force it, says Dr. Bring. Allow them to move at their own pace when it comes to socializing again.

"You also can work with your school's counselors and other mental health professionals to address any anxiety they are experiencing. Going back to school is a tough transition, so do not press the envelope," he suggests. "Be kind and supportive because the harder you press, the harder the transition will be."

You want to gradually rebuild their socialization muscles. Kids are resilient and can often adapt if work with them and listen to their needs, says Dr. Bring

What This Means For You

While the need for socialization among children and adolescents is certainly a valid concern, the need for health and safety in the midst of a pandemic should not be compromised in the process. Look for creative ways to allow your kids to socialize with their peers, and be careful not to force the issue if they are not ready. By making a commitment to be honest and communicating with them on a consistent basis, your kids will glean more from this difficult time in their lives than you might imagine.

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Article Sources
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  1. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Delta variant: what we know about the science. Updated August 26, 2021.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Guidance for COVID-19 prevention in K-12 schools. Updated August 5, 2021.

  3. Cedars-Sinai Hospital. Coping with back-to-school anxiety during COVID-19. Published March 15, 2021.

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