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What is The Long-Term Impact of Isolation on a Child's Mental Health?

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The Vital Need for Social Interactions

Acceptable social behavior and engaging in social interactions are vital to every child’s development. However, due to the ongoing pandemic that has included quarantines and sporadic lockdowns, many children are being denied those fundamental social interactions that are so vital to their well-being and healthy development.

Research has shown that the absence of social relationships and behaviors can significantly impact a child’s development in various ways. For example, studies have shown that socially isolated children’s academic performance tends to be inferior, they find themselves to be part of a less advantaged social class, and are more likely to be psychologically distressed in adulthood (Lacey, Kumari & Bartley, 2014).

Understanding the Human Stress Response

When a person is not able to sufficiently interact socially this can result in experiencing social isolation. Healthy social relationships are vital to the maintenance of health, and their deprivation often results in feelings of loneliness (Doane & Adam, 2010). Loneliness is linked to people experiencing higher levels of stress.

The primary function of the human stress response is to protect that person from danger perceived somewhere in the environment. Since social interaction is a fundamental human need, being socially isolated causes the autonomic nervous system to become activated as the social deprivation is perceived as a threat.

When the natural stress response is activated, the brain releases multiple hormones to alert the body, so that it can jump into action to do what is necessary to protect itself from danger. Releasing these hormones places the entire system on guard and forces the person to remain vigilant until the perceived danger and the threat of harm has passed.

While meant to be protective, the incessant release of these hormones cannot be maintained indefinitely. Releasing these hormones without respite will eventually tax the system with negative consequences.

It has been shown that when the body is “stuck” in this active stress response over an extended period, a person is at higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease, elevated blood pressure, infectious illness, cognitive deterioration, and mortality.

These physiological consequences of experiencing stress over time as a result of being denied social interaction, rarely appear in childhood, but are typically experienced in adulthood. So these raised levels of stress will not only threaten a socially isolated child’s health, earlier in life but in adulthood as well.

Impaired Brain Development

Aside from the physiological problems created by increased stress levels, socially isolated children have been shown to have other problems as well. Studies on social isolation have revealed that a lack of social relationships can impair the development of the brain’s structure.

In extreme cases of social isolation, studies of young mice and monkeys have shown how the brain is strongly affected by a lack of social behavior and relationships (Makinodan, Rosen, Ito & Corfas, 2012).

Early on in their development, the mice and monkeys were socially isolated for several weeks to further investigate the relationship between social isolation and physiological and cognitive functioning. The researchers found deficits in the communication chains in cells called oligodendrocytes. In other words, these cells had impaired neuron-to-neuron (cell-to-cell) communication in the prefrontal cortex.

The function of these cells is dependent on social interaction to develop the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is a part of the brain which is associated with a variety of cognitive functions, such as planning, higher-level thought, and social interaction. The researchers argue that if the development of these cells and areas of the brain is disrupted, children can also possibly develop deficits in these areas of the brain.

The Inescapable Need for Social Support

Research indicates the importance of social interaction. And it shows that social isolation impairs not only the physiological functions of the body but also the development of the nervous system’s support cells, which consequently affects the development of cognitive functioning. The necessity of social interaction doesn’t end there.

There are reasons to believe that the human need for social interaction goes beyond being a risk factor but is a “lifesaving factor” as well. As mentioned above, when a person’s stress response is activated, the brain releases multiple stress hormones.

One of those hormones that are released has the function to force us into social contact. As the need for social connection is important to everyone, when vulnerable, the body forces us to socialize. Perhaps this is why solitary confinement is recognized as one of the most painful forms of torture. The denial of social interaction can cause a person to go crazy!

On the other hand, research has shown how social support affects people who are prone to stress. By receiving social assistance, children can cope more easily with high levels of stress.

Research has also shown that social support is strongly associated with feelings of mastery and the ability to deal with stressful situations, as well increasing quality of life (Martin, Carlson & Buskist, 2009). So, by social interaction, support, and contact they receive, children who have experienced social isolation are shielded from physiological illness, cognitive impairment, and feelings of loneliness.

Social Isolation or Loneliness?

Many of us associate social isolation with loneliness. When it comes to loneliness, Perlman and Peplau’s (1981) definition is often referenced. They define loneliness as a negative feeling – a lonely person is experiencing a discrepancy between desired and actual social contact.

While there will often be a correlation between social isolation and loneliness, at the same time social isolation and loneliness are not the same. It happens to be that people who have few social contacts are often lonelier than people with many contacts, as their social limitations will cause them to be lonely (Meeuwesen, Hortulanus, and Machielse, 2001; Halvorsen, 2005).

But there are people whose social interactions are few and yet don’t feel lonely. This is because they are so connected to their inner self that they don’t need social interactions to the same degree. They don’t need as many external connections.

Regardless of the cause, most people experience loneliness as a painful feeling. What’s more, these feelings of loneliness often become the cause or are connected to other mental health problems. Much empirical research on adults and adolescents shows a link between loneliness and depression (see for example Qualter, Brown, Munn & Rotenberg, 2010).

Studies have found that among adolescents the source of depressive symptoms is more often friendship-related loneliness than parent-related loneliness. This would seem to be because friends are the preferred source of social support during adolescence (Lau, Chan & Lau, 1999).

It has long been known to researchers and scientists that a lonely adult is predisposed to depression later in life. More recently it has become known that lonely children are more vulnerable to depression in their youth as well. In one study, researchers concluded that prevention of loneliness in childhood may be a protective factor against depression in adulthood (Qualter et al., 2010).

Loneliness expert John Cacioppo was the late director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience. He explained that there is both objective and perceived isolation (also called loneliness), and what consequences and problems isolation and loneliness bring.

According to Cacioppo, objective social isolation is the result of having few friends or no family. Perceived social isolation (loneliness), on the other hand, can be felt even in a social context; for example, one can be at a family dinner or amongst friends and still feel lonely. Although one is surrounded by people, if there is no satisfying connection to any of those people, there is a feeling of loneliness.

Although objective, social isolation can predict loneliness. Cacioppo explained that perceived social isolation is more a function of the quality of the social interaction as opposed to the amount of social interaction. Therefore, perceived social isolation can predict the sense of loneliness with greater accuracy than what is predicted by objective isolation.

But loneliness is more than just a feeling. It affects how the brain perceives the world, causing the brain to become alert and causes one to experience symptoms of anxiety. Besides, those who feel lonely tend to feel more shy, are more socially handicapped, may feel chronic sadness, can be more hostile, and travel through life with a more negative mood.

Research has shown that these are all consequences of loneliness. If research participants are made to feel lonely, they also become sadder, their mood lowers, and so forth. The effect of isolation on mortality is four times larger than obesity, and it is more prevalent. Because of this, Cacioppo argues that social isolation and loneliness are major social issues.

Effects of Social Isolation on Different Age Groups

There is no way to predict how children of any age will remember this time in their lives as they grow older. None of us have any precedent upon which to draw. Nor as parents and educators are there any remotely similar experiences from which to extrapolate as to how this widespread, chronic isolation of COVID-19 will impact our children.

Most children probably don’t comprehend the gravity of the situation that we are in at the moment, as they probably accept social isolation as the “new norm” for the time being. At the same time, it can be expected that there will be a negative impact and that will manifest itself differently according to age.


Preschool, since it is often the maiden voyage for children to interact with peers, is generally the foundation for social development. Depriving preschoolers of the opportunity to build that foundation, puts them at a deficit in developing social skills such as peer interactions, problem-solving, and behavioral expectations.

Elementary School

During the years of elementary school, children begin to develop a modicum of independence, and their social interactions begin to become more sophisticated as they start to grasp the connection between their actions and consequences.

When the option of attending school is taken off the table, many children will increase their screen time to compensate for disruptions in their daily schedule. This migration to the screen, combined with the lost peer interactions, can retard social development.

Tweens and Teens

But those children that may be beset with greatest challenges of social isolation are those who fall into the preteen and teenage group. Mature enough to comprehend more fully the consequences of their actions, in addition to needing more social interaction, they stand to be more impacted without social interactions.

Lacking the external motivation provided by social events such as team sports, proms, and graduations, which are important components of defining their sense of self, they may struggle to adjust to a different type of social life. And in the process they may experience symptoms of depression and anxiety. Unless addressed, these can affect their long-term functioning.

Some Tips to Help Mitigate the Pain of Isolation

There is no expectation that this isolation will continue indefinitely. What’s more, study after study shows that children are more resilient than we realize. So hopefully some if not much of the impact is reversible. In the meantime, there are ways to help:

1. Virtual Teamwork

Parents should create new ways for children to do activities together with their friends while on lockdown at home. Teamwork builds self-confidence, friendships, social skills, and a sense of belonging or community. For older children, social activities could be arranged online, such as dinner parties or “virtual sleepovers.”

2. Daily Check-Ins

Dr. Nekeshia Hammond suggests the need for daily check-ins. “Children and teens deal with quarantine and massive changes in their lives in different ways. This makes it vital for parents or caregivers to have daily check-ins where we ask them about their day and their needs. Check-ins help kids remember that there is someone who cares enough to check in with them and see how they are doing,” says Hammond.

3. Validate Your Child’s Feelings

Katie Lear specializes in treating school-aged children with anxiety and trauma symptoms. Lear believes that validating a child’s feelings helps to combat feelings of isolation and loneliness. “A simple comment like, ‘I know this must be so hard for you,’ can help children feel like their parents understand why they are struggling right now.”

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