Social Distancing and Toddler Development: Q & A with a Child Psychologist

Let’s be honest, navigating social-distancing guidelines is challenging for even the most resilient and adaptable adults. As a parent of a toddler, the stress of trying to keep our family safe reaches a whole other level, especially when considering their development.

If you can imagine, getting a toddler to not put their hands in their mouth or ask them to not touch their face until after sanitizing is exhausting at best. Further, children under three are too young to wear a mask and getting a toddler to abide by the recommended “six feet distance from others” rule really only works if an adult physically holds them back. If you have a toddler like mine, they will still find a way to wiggle out of your arms or try to get out of the stroller when you are near other people so they can engage on their own terms. 

Given these hurdles, some parents are simply finding it easier to keep their little ones away from any social interactions outside their immediate family, but then they worry about what the isolation might do to their kids’ development. Other parents who are bringing their toddlers out and about are concerned they are teaching their children unnatural or confusing social lessons that might lead to fearing others or becoming germaphobes later in life. 

One thing is clear, we are in uncharted territory, and with a vaccine still months away, it’s hard for parents of young children to know what decisions regarding social-distancing guidelines are best for the overall health and development of our little ones.  

Gratefully, there are professionals hard at work trying to understand these issues and help parents navigate through this stressful time. To learn more, I brought my questions about the impact of social distancing on my toddler to Laura Probasco Johnson, a licensed clinical social worker, registered play-therapist-supervisor, founder of Probasco and Associates, and co-founder of The Art of Play. 

Here is the Q & A from my conversation with Laura: 

Q: How important is it for toddlers to have opportunities for socializing and interacting with other young children?

Around the time your child turns two, your toddler will start to actively reach out to other children. But as with any other skill, they will learn how to socialize by trial and error. It is important that we create ways to connect them with other toddlers that will encourage the skills of play, connection, and boundary setting. 

Q: Will not allowing toddlers to come in physical contact (hugs/affection/play) with others outside of their immediate family have an impact on their development?

This, unfortunately, is outside of our own learning process, and it will be new for us to teach our children something that we did not have to learn. When we think about development, we have to think about the ability to normalize the current environment we live in. Communication is always going to be the best way to encourage our children into the social learning process.  

Q: How will adults wearing masks interfere with toddlers ability to learn and understand?

This, again, will be a learning process. Education is going to be key. Kids will follow directions if we are able to model what we want them to understand

Q: If we start selectively engaging with other family and friends, is it confusing or harmful for toddlers if we say some people (adults and children) are okay for them to interact with and others are not? 

Great question. It’s important for each family to decide what is best for them. Something that might be helpful and what we have implemented in our own family is the green, yellow, and red light program. If we are close to a family and know their safety practices, we can consider them green light. Meaning it’s okay to spend time with them, hug them, and/or interact for a longer period of time. This can continue on to yellow light and red light boundaries. These are all good conversations to have with your partner and families to establish your own safety routine. 

Q: Will social distancing at such a critical time of developmental boundary setting teach our toddlers to be afraid of others?

Our children will always learn from looking up! I think it is very important for our kids to know that we are learning new things right now too and that might change as time goes on. We can use this as a time to talk to our kids about boundaries, at a younger age than we might have done without COVID-19. 

Q: Do you see any positives to social distancing on toddler’s development?

It is important that we continue to be open to the current environment of learning and to provide coping skills for our kids to adapt. The positive of social distancing is having harder conversations earlier and as parents being willing to acknowledge our own fears and ways of coping as a family. Hard situations can have the opportunity to provide conversations about values and foundational structure that can get us through! 

Q: Are there things parents can do to help fill in the social gap that is being missed if our toddlers are not getting to socialize with other children?

It is important to continue to promote social outlets for our toddlers. Social media can have its downfalls, but it can also have its benefits. There are numerous online connection programs as well as online play groups. This is a new way of interaction but we have the opportunity to normalize these connections to increase a new way to socialize. 

Q: The guidance to not touch your face without washing your hands first is nearly impossible for toddlers who learn through putting things in their mouth. Will it impact toddler development by trying to modify this natural behavior at this stage? Do you have any tips that are age appropriate to help?

Toddler Washing HandsThis is going to be a learning process for us as parents. There is really no instructional map on when or if we can “act” as we used to or what the new normal may be. What we do know is that kids are extremely resilient. If we give them the new idea of safety and guard them from our own fears, they will adapt. 

Q: Any tips on language to use around masks, social distancing, etc. that will be healthy and understandable for toddlers? 

It is important for us to focus on the idea of safety and normalizing each season of life. I would start with how we put on jackets for the fall, umbrella for the rain as well as snow boots for the winter, and we now wear masks during the year to protect us from COVID. The more we normalize the better our kids will adjust! 


Bottomline takeaways from our conversation — Hang in their parents! You are doing great work by simply being concerned about your children’s well being. There is unfortunately no playbook for what we are all living through. Be reassured that children are resilient and they take many of their cues from us. The more communicative we are with admitting that we are also learning new things, the more comfortable we get with having hard conversations regarding boundaries, and the more we can embrace this wild season with creativity and humor instead of fear and anxiety, the healthier our families will be.

Ashley Heyburn
Ashley is a mom to an incredibly active toddler, and wife to a kind-hearted Louisville, KY native. After over a decade living in Brooklyn, NY, and few years in Cincinnati, OH, she recently returned home to KC to plant roots and grow her family. Most days you will find her exploring local parks, libraries and playgroups with her son, and tapping into Kansas Cities great art scene whenever she can.

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