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Modifications for video calling & alternative options

Ariel Horvitz, Psy.D.
• May 29, 2020

During this time of social distancing, many families are exploring how their young children can continue friendships without play dates or school. For young children, video calling may create anxiety or a sense of loss. They may be telling you that they miss their friends more after video calls or that they are not interested in sitting at the screen. Video calling on its own, only allows for verbal communication to easily occur. Nonverbal cues are hard to catch, and physical contact is removed. 

This week we will explore some modifications for video calling, as well as alternative options for parents to try with their young children at home. 

Tip #1: Family Values and COVID-19 

The first step is to define family rules around social distancing. This may be impacted by state ordinances, health concerns in a family or other factors. Have an open discussion about COVID-19, using age appropriate language. The goal is for the child to be able to answer the question “Why do you have to social distance?” Then discuss family rules around outside social interactions. Young children benefit from having rules written down and paired with visual reminders.  

After deciding on the family rules, work with your child to create a list that can be hung in a shared area. Your child can decorate it or choose different colors/designs. Rules may include games that can be played outside (example: bike riding), how to make sure you are far enough away from someone, when to wear a mask or how to appropriately wash your hands.  

Here are some helpful links for talking about COVID19: 

Tip #2: Modifications for Video Calling 

We know children need parallel play when transitioning to new situations and activities. This occurs when children play next to a peer and can observe them. We also know not all children can or want to sit in front of a screen and talk. Here are some helpful modifications parents can organize to help their child engage with peers in way that may feel more typical and natural for them.

  • Create a theme for the meeting: Plan with caregivers to have all children situated with similar toys for the video call. Themes could include Legos/building, arts and crafts, action figures/dolls. This will allow your child to experience an opportunity for parallel play which may help them process video communication in a more natural way and then move between engagement and separation. 
  • Dance Parties: For older children, each child can take a turn playing a song for everyone to dance to. Younger children may benefit from a caregiver DJ. Not only does this allow for children to have a shared activity, it’s also exercise! 
  • TV-show or Movie party: Similar to creating play themes or dance parties, having a shared focus point can help direct attention and increase engagement through a shared interest without putting pressure on a child to entertain their friends.  

Tip #3: Alternatives to video-calling 

For some children, video calling may create anxiety. They do not know when it is their turn to talk, and they become overwhelmed by all the visual and verbal cues on the screen. For others, video calling may be too difficult due to feeling bored, inattentive or disinterested. Video calling may also serve as a reminder to how different things are now which may increase feelings of sadness or frustration. Below are some ideas for connection that build-in time to think and process what wants to be said to a peer and process responses.  

  • Write letters
  • Draw pictures for friends
  • Send a mini-care package: A small box could include a small game, a card or your child’s favorite snacks they want to share
  • Film a short video for friends and text or email them: Ideas include a funny skit, a message saying hello or a silly dance or face. You can also take your child’s interests and create a mini-tv show for their friends, such as a cooking show showing your child’s favorite fast snack recipe or your child leading a science experiment
  • Window decorating: You can create window art with painter’s tape, tissue paper for a fake stain glass look, decorating with signs or using window crayons
  • Sidewalk chalk: Decorate your neighborhood sidewalk with pictures or messages to friends
  • Video games with safe chat options: Some video games have the ability to create invitation only parties where kids can play together. Adult set-up is required and caregivers should use their discretion with online games. Games with an ability to play with friends include Minecraft, Animal Crossing, and The Lego Games.  

Tip #4: Adult Supervised Group Calls 

Some groups of children may benefit from an adult lead activity. In early childhood, turn taking skills are still being developed. Typically, with play dates or during the school day, adults are there to monitor games and activities. Video calling and virtually connecting increases the difficulty with turn taking. Adults can help mediate conversations and ensure even participation. They can also create a shared focus that removes the pressure to entertain each other and rather focuses on joining in an activity. 

Tip #5: Slow to Warm Up Kids 

“Slow to warm up” refers to children who need to take time observing before feeling comfortable engaging with others. Even though your child may know their friends, video calling creates a novelty in communication that may increase the need to step back and watch. Not everyone enjoys being on camera or participating in video calls. However, when a young child is receiving several invitations, parents can worry that saying no may lead to their child missing out on future peer engagement. Parents should find a balance in saying yes to a few invitations and allowing their child autonomy with their free time. A good comparison may be birthday invitations — your child does not need to go to every birthday party, but it can be meaningful to attend parties for close friends. Here are some tips in helping your kids with video calls: 

  • In group calls, allow your child to observe the interactions without pressure to join the conversations.
  • Allow periodic participation — moments of coming and going/distractions are understandable. Children can use the “mute” function to come and go without disrupting their peers.
  • Give your child a fidget, toy or markers they can use when they need a break from looking at the screen. Young children are not looking for when one friend in a group stops talking or looks away. The formality of business calls does not need to apply to play-time calls.
  • After the phone call, ask your child about what they heard, who said the funniest joke, who wore the brightest shirt, etc.
  • Talk with your child about feelings that came up during the call and after. It is common for feelings of happiness or excitement to occur during the call, and loss or sadness afterwards. Reflect on these feelings and normalize them for your child.  


We recognize that amidst the current pandemic, this is an extremely difficult time. If you need support, we can help.


Ariel Horvitz, Psy.D.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Team

Dr. Horvitz received her Psy.D. in Clinical Psychology with a concentration in Child and Adolescent Studies. Her background is working with children, teens, families and parents. She has also worked with adult clients regarding emerging adulthood stress and new parent concerns.