“Social malnutrition” is a term that Dr. Saba Merchant, a Canadian pediatrician, uses to describe the situation facing many young people as we move away from the pandemic. She argues that the isolation, stress, and anxiety over the past few years have resulted in serious developmental delays and mental health issues. At the same time, the pandemic expected parents to juggle the pressure of managing family finances and health while monitoring online schooling and academic development of their children. These past few years haven’t been easy for anyone. 

Mental health practitioners are reporting an explosion of mental health issues while teachers are doing what they can to support students who are behind academically and socially. Anxiety, depression, inattention, disordered eating, obsessions, compulsions and many other symptoms are all on the rise. Dr. Merchant worries that mental health issues will take longer to heal than academic and language delays. She cautions that records from the 1919 Spanish Flu show that admissions to asylums were up seven-fold up to six years after the end of that pandemic. While our current situation is much different, the comparison is an important reminder about the need for extra care, support and social engagement for children as we move out of the pandemic.

Many adolescents are still carrying a belief that “that world is dangerous” from an invisible virus and public health messaging. The start-stop uncertainty of lockdowns resulted in many schoolchildren being out of sync socially, while many families are still trying to figure out their comfort level with socialising outside of school. Adolescent brains are at a stage of development where they are busy refining neuronal connectivity that will define interactions with peers. Dr. Daniela Rivera of the Universidad Mayor of Santiago, worries about how brain shrinkage and memory impairment from public health mandates and social isolation of the pandemic can last years. Living through a pandemic means that we naturally have more difficulty connecting with others. As pandemic restrictions have lifted and we learn to re-socialise, she points out how hyperactivity, intolerance, irritability and anxiety are all common symptoms from a lack of practice being around others. 

Adolescents are particularly prone to worrying about what others think of them. Years of online learning and “social malnutrition” has led to many youth avoiding social situations where there is fear of embarrassing themselves. Re-socialising and bouncing back from the pandemic has been particularly hard for youth with pre-existing neurodevelopmental issues such as autism, ADHD and learning disabilities as well as kids from families with financial stress, substance abuse or a history of mental health struggles.  

So what makes “social nutrition” such an essential ingredient of a healthy upbringing? According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, playing with kids their own age helps children learn social-emotional, cognitive, language and self-regulation skills. Young people with social skills are better able to listen to directions, pay attention, cooperate, compromise, solve disputes with words and focus on tasks without constant supervision. These social skills are critical for success in both personal and professional relationships. Socialisation is crucial for adolescents to develop a sense of identity, belonging and where they fit in the world. Spending time with friends and peers allows them to explore their interests, beliefs, and values, and helps them develop a sense of self.  

Are you thinking that your child might come across as awkward or that they are avoiding social situations? Maybe it’s time to build in more social time for your child even though anxiety and a lack of social skills is making it difficult for young one to connect with others? Talking about sensitive subjects with adolescents can be tricky as they’re naturally more reluctant to spend time and open up with parents. When you have a window of time free from our heavily-scheduled lives, we can try to make interactions with our children positive and easy-going. Showing interest in what kids are doing and being curious about their life can make these conversations easier. Let them know that they can talk to you and that you’ll listen without being judgemental. Being a sounding board for your child can help keep the lines of communication open. 

Points to consider in supporting your child with socialisation:

  • Talk it out and ask questions. Try to find out what your child thinks the problem is. Discuss how to improve their situation when things are calm and going well. 
  • Practice the skills needed to meet people and build friendships. Role-play until your child feels comfortable approaching other kids and keeping a conversation going. 
  • Sign up for new activities. This can help your child meet kids other than those at school or in the neighbourhood. Help keep things going by offering to get your child to social events and activities, or let your child invite a friend on family outings.
  • Make friends with classmates’ parents. Inviting parents and kids on social outings can help shy youth interact with different kids — even those your child thinks they won’t like.
  • Don’t force your child to do something. Forcing isn’t a good way to get cooperation, particularly with adolescents who are trying to become more independent. It’s enough for many kids to find just one thing they like to do once a week. Try to help your child find that one thing.
  • Remind your child there are different types of friends. Not everybody can be a friend for all situations. Some kids aren’t good at keeping secrets, but they’re lots of fun. Some are easy to talk to about feelings, but they don’t share the same interests. Some are great to work with on projects but not so great to hang out with. Let your child know that just because someone isn’t “best friend” material, that doesn’t mean that child can’t be a friend.
  • Understand what your child wants and needs. Some kids don’t need a bunch of friends. Managing the drama of multiple friends is sometimes too much. Keep in mind that your child’s friendship needs might not match yours and that your child may change over time too. 
  • Your child may not recognise the kid who could be a friend. Talk about who your child likes to spend time with, either at school or outside of it. Point out who they talk about in positive ways. Sometimes kids aim to be friends with kids who have very different values. Guide your child by helping them voice values that are not negotiable. Ask things like: Do you want a dependable friend who shows up on time? Is honesty very important to you, or having a friend you can confide in?
  • Talk about behaviours that can damage a friendship. Kids with learning and thinking differences may wear out a friendship because they want so badly for it to work. Kids with ADHD can overwhelm friends by talking nonstop or interrupting. Be frank with your child about what your child needs to know to avoid hurting a friendship. For instance: friends need space and can’t always be together. They may each have other friends they want to see sometimes.

In conclusion, don’t forget to prioritise your own mental health. Kids don’t do well when we don’t do well. Practice self-compassion in knowing that we don’t have all the answers and that we shouldn’t try to project a picture-perfect image of our family to the world. Try to model a more realistic and self-loving way of being. Despite all the demands of our busy lives, self-care is the foundation to wellness in parenthood. No matter how small, take everyday steps to nurture yourself. This, in turn, will help nurture the well-being of your entire family.  


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