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Social Interaction as Pandemic Restrictions Ease

Posted on Jun 21, 2021

As we begin to see an easing of pandemic-related restrictions for social and physical distancing, you may be feeling anxiety and stress as social interactions for you and your child might be increasing as we begin to interact more with others again. On this week’s On Call for All Kids, Jennifer Katzenstein, Ph.D., director of psychology and neuropsychology and co-director of the Center for Behavioral Health at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, explains what parents might expect to see as children come out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What might people be feeling as we are returning to social interactions?

Honestly it makes me nervous. I have found myself getting anxious watching TV shows and movies where the characters aren’t wearing masks. This is going to be a big transition for all of us, and for some, especially those with social anxiety, being in lockdown/quarantine was beneficial for mental health and took them out of the environment that was causing anxiety – situations with social interactions. With an easing of restrictions, social interactions and social activities are hopefully going to be the norm again, and preparing ourselves for yet another transition will be helpful.

What are tips for initiating social interactions again?

  • Ease into it.
  • Find social contacts who reinforce you and are positive, and who have taken similar quarantine measures as you have.
  • Use coping techniques – deep breathing and visualization.
  • Practice self-care.
  • Take small steps. Work back in slowly with activities and interactions that will be reinforcing.

What should I do if my child doesn’t want to engage socially in person?

This is OK, and totally understandable, but let’s start by hearing our children out. What is making them nervous? Is it that they don’t enjoy the activity or individual, or they are anxious/nervous, or something else? Try to get to the root of the anxiety first, and then focus on 1) providing coping skills, 2) working back in slowly, and 3) checking in after an event to see what went well or what didn’t go well, so we can change things for the next time.

What if my child has become more attached to a mobile device now and needs to transition back to outdoor and social activities?

As we transition to an easing of restrictions, we have had to use our devices in new ways and for new social interactions. To begin, try to understand your children’s screen use, what they are getting out of it, what appeals to them, and if there is a social component they are engaging in. Then work together to determine what is reasonable to expect each day, with a potential “lessening” of time week after week to “ween” off the devices.

Offer guidance and suggestions, and alternative options. Make sure there are other appealing options that your child wants to engage in, that aren’t device-related. Finally, as you often hear me say, we have to practice the same behavior we are asking of our kids, so this is a great opportunity for us as parents to lessen our screen time too.

What is social anxiety disorder, and how do you know if you might have it?

Social anxiety is characterized by:

  • Persistent, intense fear or anxiety about specific social situations because you believe you may be judged, embarrassed or humiliated.
  • Avoidance of anxiety-producing social situations or enduring them with intense fear or anxiety.
  • Excessive anxiety that's out of proportion to the situation.
  • Anxiety or distress that interferes with your daily living.

If you are finding yourself experiencing these symptoms, and they are preventing you or your child from engaging in daily routines, returning to “normal” activities, and/or engaging in previously enjoyed activities, then it is a good time to reach out to a physician or psychologist for additional evaluation and support.

On Call for All Kids is a weekly series featuring Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital experts. Visit HopkinsAllChildrens.org/Stories each Monday for the latest report. You also can explore more advice from Jennifer Katzenstein, Ph.D.


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