COVID-19: Work on Social Skills

By Caroline Segal, Ph.D


Many parents are citing frustration and concern about their children’s social development at a time when socializing is extremely limited • Yet even while social-distancing, your child can continue to build these important skills

If your child had been working steadily on social skills before the COVID-19 pandemic caused schools to close, extracurriculars to vanish, and playdates to end, you might be asking yourself, “Now what?” The good news is there are plenty of ways to fill the void and help your child continue to make progress.

Stay Connected

A helpful way to think about what we are doing as a society is not so much that we are “social distancing” but rather that we are “physical distancing.” There are still plenty of safe ways to engage with people outside of the home, and maintaining a strong network of support is helpful for everybody in the family.

  • You may already be on this train, but virtual play dates are all the rage! With free video chat options from FaceTime, Skype, Google Hangouts, and Zoom, kids can get together with one or more peers for some good old-fashioned bonding time. There are plenty of web sites that offer fun activities kids can do within video chats (e.g., Caribu, Messenger Kids, and Jackbox Games), but you can also help your kids come up with games they can play with their peers without depending even further on technology. For example, they can have scavenger hunts (e.g., “Find something in your house you’ve had for over 5 years and tell the other person the story of how you got it”). Other ideas include playing “I Spy”, putting on talent shows, and even writing stories together (each person takes turn writing one sentence).
  • A great way to help your children think about and stay connected to others is to write handwritten letters to loved ones. You can encourage your kids to share stories about what they’ve been doing since they’ve been home and think about what messages they’d like to send to family and friends near and far.

Learn Through Play

There are plenty of games that you may already have that actually require a lot of social thinking skills. It’s time to whip out the board games and have a family game night.

  • Apples to Apples is a great game in which players are given a prompt and have to pick from a set of cards in their hand which one best matches the prompt. This game actually requires a lot of perspective-taking skills. Your child will have to think about who is judging each round and what they know about that person in order to predict how they will behave.
  • Guess Who is another game that encourages good social skills. Your child will practice thinking objectively about characters, using deductive reasoning to come up with helpful questions, taking turns, and tolerating frustration if they lose.
  • Charades or Celebrity are games you can play anywhere, any time that also build social skills. In order to be effective at these games, you must be able to communicate skillfully while observing the rules (e.g., in charades, you have to communicate only using your body, not your words). Your child needs to think about what they know about their partner that might help (for example, if the celebrity is January Jones, it really helps to know that dad’s birthday is in January!), and they need to be flexible if they pick a strategy that just isn’t working.

More Directed Activities

And if you’d like to go a little further, you can engage your child in some of the same social skills work that a therapist would. Following are a couple of activities you might try.

  • Read books together about different social situations. Ask your child questions about the characters, what they felt during different events in the story, how their actions affected other characters, etc. A favorite book that encourages prosocial thinking is Be Kind by Pat Zietlow Miller.
  • Have practice conversations. Help your child learn to have a balanced conversation by sharing information about him or herself and also asking appropriate questions to learn more about the other person. A fun way to develop conversation skills is to play a game where the goal is to have as long a back-and-forth conversation as possible. Stack tokens or blocks every time someone makes an utterance that keeps the conversation going, and see how tall a tower you can make. If your child has trouble moving the conversation along, pause the game and help them think about a question they could ask or a comment they could make that would help the tower grow taller. 

Finally, the best way to help your children with their social skills is to examine your own. How do you make friends? Handle conflicts? React in awkward situations? What can your children learn from watching you?

Although opportunities to be physically near others are limited, opportunities for socializing are everywhere. So fear not – with a little creativity and an open mind, you can help your child keep up all the great work on their social skills.

Caroline Segal is a clinical psychologist and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Sasco River Center in CT. She specializes in the treatment of child and adolescent anxiety, depression, trauma, and behavioral issues.

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