Impact of Isolation on Childhood Development

Boy using laptop at sunset

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Key Takeaways

  • While short-term social distancing should have minimal impact on kids, long-term isolation may pose some risks.
  • Socialization is a vital part of a child’s development, helping kids learn how to interact with others.
  • Parents need to get creative when finding ways for their kids to interact with others using safe social distancing practices and technology to help bridge the gap during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Regular communication, established routines, and ongoing discussions about feelings all are important aspects of helping kids cope.

Most children, adolescents, and teens consider school, sports, and other activities their most important social platforms. Although they can connect with friends online, having access to their peers in-person is key to building relationships.

Now that social distancing is making it difficult, if not impossible, for kids to do this, parents, siblings, and other family members have become their only outlet for true face-to-face social contact. While the benefits of slowing down and spending more time with family are indisputable, our children will feel the effects of social isolation.

Social Isolation and Childhood Development

In general, social distancing for a few months should have minimal impact on kids. It’s the possibility of more extended periods of isolation that raises questions about the type of risk this may pose for younger and older children.

Socialization is a vital process in a child’s development. It is how children learn the skills that influence their everyday interactions with others.

“During periods of social development, when a child is deprived of the opportunity to build these skills, it can potentially delay their socio-emotional development,” says Dr. Barbara Nosal, PhD, LMFT, LADC, chief clinical officer at Newport Academy.

In fact, a recent study looked at the effect school closures are having on children and adolescents, especially those with mental health needs and children with special needs. The mental health charity YoungMinds surveyed 2111 participants up to age 25 with a history of mental illness. Over 80% of those surveyed said the COVID-19 pandemic made their conditions worse.

Additionally, 26% reported being unable to access mental health support due to social isolation. The author notes a need for further research as this pandemic continues. She also stresses the importance of monitoring young people’s mental health status over the long term as a result of prolonged school closures, strict social distancing measures, and the pandemic itself.

Effects of Social Isolation on Different Age Groups

It’s difficult to say how kids of any age will remember this time in their lives. After all, there is no precedent for this. As parents, educators, and other caregivers, we don’t have any past experiences or data from previous periods of widespread isolation to predict how they may be impacted by social isolation during COVID-19.

While some children may not be old enough to fully comprehend the gravity of the situation, Nosal says most children will accept the current situation as their "new normal" for months to come. With that in mind, here are some things to consider for each age group.


Preschool is often the foundation for social development, says Nosal, especially since it can be the first opportunity for children to learn how to interact with their peers. And without the opportunity to build that foundation, Nosal says children may find it harder to develop social skills such as peer interactions, problem-solving, and behavioral expectations.

Grade School

During the elementary years, kids become more independent and begin to understand the relationship between actions and consequences. “Similar to younger children, they are still refining their social skills, which typically develop during peer interactions at school,” Nosal says.

When school isn’t an option, children may choose to engage in more screen time to compensate for disruptions in their routine. That’s why parents must implement a schedule and monitor their children’s activities.

Tweens and Teens

While they are old enough to somewhat comprehend the consequences of their actions and the impact of isolation, Nosal says a teenager's brain is still developing and in need of social interaction to mature.

“Teens consider social events, such as proms, team sports, and graduations, as a reflection of their sense of self, and when these are not available, along with canceled school classes, they may struggle to adjust to a different type of social life,” she explains. Without the external motivation provided by those events, teens can experience symptoms of depression and anxiety, that unless addressed, can affect their long-term functioning.

The good news? Considering that most children who are homeschooled do not experience a negative impact on socialization, Nosal says parents can implement ways to counter their child’s lack of socialization.

Tips and Strategies for Parents

Children, adolescents, and teens are able to adjust to change and transitions far easier than adults. That said, parents can play a critical role in supporting the mental and emotional health of their children during this time.

Communication Is Key

Create a safe space where children can ask questions and share their concerns and frustrations regarding the loss of activities and regular routines during times of isolation. This also goes for educating your child or teen about the importance of social distancing and how temporary stay-at-home orders were made to keep them safe.

You can facilitate this process by listening with compassion and validating their feelings, even if that is disappointment, anger, or sadness. “Feeling understood can help them to process their feelings in a healthier way,” says Nosal.

Connect With Them About Staying Connected

Social distancing does not mean social isolation. Through the use of technology, kids can remain in contact with their friends, teachers, coaches, faith leaders, and other peers or adults who play a role in their lives.

Your role during this time is to be open and willing to work with them on how they can interact with their friends on social networks, via live video, texting, and phone conversations. Make sure to have frequent conversations with them about parameters and expectations regarding electronics when communicating with friends. 

Maintain a Routine

During this time of increased uncertainty and anxiety, Nosal says it’s important to maintain a routine that is structured and predictable, with flexibility and spontaneity.

Barbara Nosal, PhD, LMFT, LADC

Parents who are home with their children can view this as a time to reconnect and redefine their family relationships.

— Barbara Nosal, PhD, LMFT, LADC

Ideas include having family meals at the same time each night that involve children in planning and cooking. Also, participating in physical activities, such as taking walks, or interactive activities such as puzzles and board games that the entire family can do can help keep kids connected and feeling supported.

Be Mindful of Frustration Levels

Both children and parents will experience an increase in frustration levels during this time. It’s okay to be flexible with your expectations. “Encourage family members to take time-outs, respect privacy and alone time, and suggest mindful activities such as meditation, yoga, or neighborhood walks to help regulate emotions,” says Nosal. 

Check Your Anxiety Levels

Nosal says managing your own stress, fear, and anxiety is even more important than managing your children’s. “Children take their cues from parents, and if you’re obsessively and overtly worried about the pandemic or continuously mention how upset you are that activities are canceled, your kids will take on your anxiety,” she says.

We all need to vent sometimes, but it is best to do that in a private place with supportive adults, where your children can’t hear you.

But most importantly, Nosal says to acknowledge yourself for doing the best you can at the moment: “Know that you are not alone and that collectively we are all feeling the same sense of uncertainty.”

What This Means For You

It's important to note that all kids are different and have different needs for socialization. If your child seems to be struggling with their mood or you notice some concerning behavior changes, reach out for help. Kids may develop mental health issues due to the major disruptions in their lives and the lack of socialization.

Talk to your pediatrician or reach out to a therapist if you're concerned. Keep in mind that many therapists are conducting online therapy right now.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

1 Source
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Lee J. Mental health effects of school closures during COVID-19. Lancet Child Adolescent Health. 2020;4(6):421. doi:10.1016/S2352-4642(20)30109-7

By Sara Lindberg
Sara Lindberg, M.Ed., is a freelance writer focusing on health, fitness, nutrition, parenting, and mental health.