Social Isolation and Mental Health Issues.

Social relationships are the key to human sustenance on earth. A sense of belongingness offers a secure feeling, and the intimacy that we share with fellow beings serves as a source of moral strength and physical support when we go through distressful times. This is vital in childhood, as such relationships influence social interaction and behaviours when they mature as adults. As much as social relationships are considered to be a rewarding experience, a lack of such relationships adversely impacts an individual’s mental health. Studies evidence the fact that isolation and a lack of social relationships when children are young impact their growth and development in the long run. 
The blog describes the importance of social relationships in ensuring children's mental health, the adverse impacts of isolation, and what can be done to foster social interactions in young children, which in turn shape the well-being of their mental health.

Social relationships and children mental health

Social interactions shape a child’s future and help build a solid foundation for the rest of their life. Human beings are not meant to go through their lives all alone. When a child is born and during their early stages of infancy, their social needs are fulfilled through bonding with parents and carers whom the child meets on a day-to-day basis. As the child grows and enters the phase of early childhood, interacting and engaging with children of their age helps them grow and develop into fully rounded human beings as they mature. 
“Adults talk; kids play” is a common saying that explicitly means that playing articulates the thoughts, feelings, behaviours, and emotions of a young child. To them, friendship and relationship at this stage are all about interacting and playing with each other and may extend to sharing toys, unlike we adults, who share empathy and shoulders when needed. 
Studies reveal that children who have friends of their age are confident in their abilities and exhibit higher self-esteem when compared to their peers, who lack opportunities to make age-appropriate friends and engage in social interactions. From our experience of being in the field for decades, a lot of children who come to us to avail themselves of treatment for their mental health issues lack social skills and are not exposed to peers of their age. 
Age-appropriate friendships and relationships play a key role in the overall development of a child, and when they lack such friendships, they are vulnerable to experiencing social isolation and other associated mental health disorders.

Brain development in early stages

Scientific studies also reveal that a lack of social interaction in the early stages of a child’s development adversely affects the structure of their brain. A study conducted on mice and monkeys shows that those that were isolated and lacked social interaction and bonding exhibited distortions in the communication that happens between neurons in the brains. This is particularly prone to impacting the prefrontal cortex in the brain, which is responsible for regulating cognitive behaviours in young children. So, not having ample social engagements can adversely impact such areas in the brain, leading to social isolation and depression as they grow and mature. The brains are actually looking for a protective hand, moral support, and emotional assistance. When children have no access to such assistance and support, they tend to feel lonely and isolated, and the adversities aggravate.
When a human being is put under stress, their behaviour is a response to handling the stressful situation. When a child feels lonely and isolated, they tend to feel unheard and unprotected. Their brains immediately start to secrete stress-relieving hormones. Such hormones save their bodies from harm and assist them in recovering from stressful situations. But this cannot happen forever. Studies show that when stress-relieving hormones are secreted frequently, there are greater chances of the person developing high levels of blood pressure, cognitive imbalances, and cardiovascular diseases. So, beyond impacting the social behaviour and mental health of children, social isolation also results in physiological adversities and conditions.

How to develop social interactions in children?

The first and foremost source of social interaction for a child is interacting with their parents, family members, and, more importantly, with age-appropriate friends. A lot of times, when both parents are working, we tend to engage them with screens and digital devices. It has now evolved to the extent where screen-free childhood is considered a privilege for young children. When they continue to spend more time on digital mediums, they tend to devote less time to other social activities. This in turn impacts their social, emotional, and psychological development in the long term. This way, there is only a very minimal opportunity for children to have verbal interaction with their parents. Such a lack of interaction results in social isolation, and the child has difficulties regulating their behaviors, e emotions, and linguistic abilities. This impacts the mental health of youth. 
Research shows that if a child stays on mobile phones gaming and binge-watching cartoons for longer than the prescribed levels, he or she is more likely to feel isolated, depressed, and anxious all the while than otherwise. 
Here are some tips to promote social behaviors in children and ensure the childrens mental health.

  • Spend as much time as possible with your child—playing, reading, sleeping, talking, etc.
  • Create a conducive environment for your child to meet and play with children who are their age.
  • Have more and more verbal interaction with your child.

  • Encourage them to spend more time with friends.
  • Never encourage them to use digital mediums as a substitute for interaction with their parents and playtime with their friends.
  • Take your children to play dates.
COVID-19 and childrens mental health

When COVID-19 emerged first in 2020, governments introduced lockdowns and school closures to curb and control the spread of the pandemic. Classes turned online, and children lacked access to play outdoors and engage with peers of their age. Beyond that, children also had to stay indoors, which eventually led to an increase in their screen time and a simultaneous decrease in play time as people feared catching infection when exposed. On the other hand, parents also experienced emotional distortions and professional challenges, and they found it hard to offer the most-needed support to their children. Though fear, anxiety, and other emotions are common in children of young ages, COVID-19 aggravates such emotions, resulting in isolation and fear. A UNICEF study shows how 330 million children remained stuck at home for a period of at least nine months. The magnitude shows the sorry state of affairs associated with children's mental health. The study also shows that many children require youth mental health services for support and assistance.

Looking for a mental health centre?

Untreated children's mental health and youth mental health issues can impact their lives in the long term. Parents should equip themselves with time and energy to attend to the child’s requirements and help them feel heard all the while. If you notice mental health issues and developmental delays in children, it is important that you consult a therapist immediately. The earlier, the better. If you are looking for a mental health counsellor, you may consult our children and youth mental health professionals at Abhasa, the leading rehabilitation and mental health centre in India.