Predictability, consistency key to easing kids back into social situations: expert

As children start to experience certain social situations for the first time following the COVID-19 pandemic, such as going to a store or playing with other kids at a park, one parenting coach suggests making these outings predictable to reduce any confusion and anxiety.

Allana Robinson, founder of Uncommon Sense Parenting, says the pandemic has caused young children to forget how to appropriately act around others in these situations. She told CTV News Channel on Saturday there are "very different" social expectations for children when communicating online compared to in-person.

"When the pandemic started, parents were all frustrated by teaching their kids all the virtual social etiquette -- when to mute, how to wait your turn to speak, how to look at the camera, but now we're seeing the opposite problem," Robinson explained.

Now, she says, parents are noting that their kids don't know the etiquette of going to a store, playing in a public park or even visiting relatives because they haven't been able to do those activities for such a long period of time.

Robinson said it is important to help prep kids for these activities so they don't become socially resistant.

"We're having to reteach them concepts like personal space, how to join play, what they can and cannot touch and so much more," she said.

Robinson said young children, especially those under the age of five, likely don't remember what life was like before the pandemic and often go into a "freeze mode" when they're out in these social situations for the first time.

She says this is a natural defence mechanism for kids when they're unfamiliar with an environment.

To help combat this, Robinson says parents should make any outing they are taking their kids to "as predictable and consistent as possible" and walk their children through what to expect beforehand. She said this can be done by telling the kids an "instruction manual-style story."

"Tell your kids the story of going to the grocery store," Robinson said. "First we drive there. Then mom gets the cart. I have to sit in the cart. I have to wear my mask at the store. Mom chooses what food goes in our cart, we cannot eat the food that is in our cart before we pay for it and leave the store."

While parents may not know exactly what the return to school will look like in the fall, Robinson said they can prepare their children by running them through a typical day.

"Take them to the school yard if you have access to it and get them familiar with it. Practice standing in line, practice giving them their lunch in their lunch containers and make them open it on their own so that they've done all of those kind of difficult things that are new ahead of time," Robinson said.

By getting a chance to practice, Robinson said these social situations will no longer be surprising for kids.

She added that these "powerful teaching tools" to help children better understand information and reduce confusion and anxiety.

"The more anticipated we can make something, the safer we're going to feel," she said.