The kids are [not] alright: Thoughts on early childhood development, social isolation, and the Coronavirus Crisis

Hi Rebekka,

With a formal order in place now, it seems all but certain we are limited to our homes for another month. 😦 So many feelings. But top of mind for me these past few days is what is this going to do to our littles? Beyond Sarah missing going to preschool, I’ve been feeling worried that being out this long, at such sensitive and impactful stages/ages, is going to cause some kind of developmental setback. Will a month of this (or more) do that? Not connecting socially and interacting in person with friends? It breaks my heart.

Yes, she has us and her brother, so I know it’s not dire. 🙂 We all definitely have fun together here. We’re doing our very best to keep life lighthearted, and honest. But, it’s the social/friendship piece I wonder about—this can’t be good to be isolated from friendships at such a tiny age? I know some kids like FaceTiming (Sarah has zero interest in FT), and that’s great, but it’s no replacement for human, real-time connections with friends. Jonathan is expressing his feelings with us about missing playing with his friends. I wonder if Sarah is having those big feelings, too!? How does a 3/4/5 year old experience this?

Do you think you might write a little about this—weigh in on this aspect of our current situation? Maybe help us parents understand the bigger developmental picture here, or otherwise reassure us? I realize this is unprecedented and nobody can make firm predictions, but I’m just looking for perspective. Maybe other parents are, too. 

As a parent of a 5-year-old and a 1-year-old, I’m asking myself some of the same questions. Here’s what I think.

Yes, most assuredly, this experience will affect them. It will most likely, if not definitely, cause developmental setbacks. They will undoubtedly have big feelings that they will struggle to understand and express. Yes, very young children are in an incredibly sensitive time of growth, discovery, and change. We’d be foolish to think that the events currently unfolding moment by moment in the world around us would not have a profound effect on them. These events will leave an indelible mark on them that they will carry for their entire lives.

And yet, I can say with some confidence that they are probably going to be okay, depending on how we help them navigate this experience. I’d be a lot more worried for them if they were separated from their parents as opposed to separated from their peers. After all, for a 3-5 year old, peers are tricky! They are wondrous playmates, to be sure, but if you lack the sophistication and higher-order brainpower to navigate complex interactions, playing with other preschoolers winds up being a series of well-negotiated arguments interspersed with tantrums. They learn a lot about being social from each other, but they stand to learn much more about the world, themselves, and intimate relationships from their primary caregivers.

The truth is, our children are going to have developmental setbacks no matter what happens, no matter how hard we try to protect them. Development is not linear–it is messy and scribbly, a tango of steps forward and backward, all trending generally in the desired direction. A robust developmental journey is not one without setbacks. Rather, it is one where in times of chaos, uncertainty, and disaster, we feel reasonably heard, held, and safe.

To wit, on my first day of social isolation, I called my oldest friend, historian Jo Guldi. “I don’t want to do this,” I told her. “I don’t want my kids to have to do this.”

“I don’t want to do this.”

She said, “Rebekka, here’s what your kids are going to remember about this time. The baby won’t remember it at all. Molly will remember an odd, wonderful window when she got to spend lots of time at home with mom and dad baking cookies and coloring.” Barring calamities beyond the indefinite window of seclusion and accompanying boredom and anxiety, I know she’s right. We control the emotional weather in our families; how we respond to this situation will directly mediate how they perceive it.

And it breaks my heart too. Last week, before many of our parks were closed, we visited a nature center, and Molly was afraid to get out of the car and walk around. She complained of an aching tummy because she “wanted to be together only with friends, not family.” Today, on her fifth birthday, Molly asked me, “Is it still germ season?” I had to tell her it was, but that we would have her birthday party via Zoom (which overwhelmed her, and from which she spent a good deal of time hiding). She told me she wished germ season could be over so she could see her friends. She asked to be fed her dinner “like a baby bird” and wants to be carried around like her little sister. She falls into baby talk regularly, and sometimes snaps into hysterics, laughing maniacally until she suddenly pivots into tears.

As for the baby, Poppy, in spite of being delighted that everyone is home with her all the time (like the now famous dog whose tail sprained from over-wagging due to happiness at having his quarantined family home), she seems somewhat broken as well. Her sleep–never a strength of hers to begin with–has become more unpredictable, fleeting, insecure, and erratic. When she’s awoken too early, as is usually the case, she alternates between whining and babbling maniacally in a rapid cycle, refusing to either settle or commit to joining the waking world.

Although we are often their guides in this crazy world, in this especially crazy of circumstances, they have become ours in turn.

All of this is normal and expected. Their world has turned upside down. We’re only 10 days in and we don’t know how many more it will be, or what life will look like when it’s done. We can offer no pat assurances or easy explanations, and many days, we are just as discombobulated as they are. Although we are often their guides in this crazy world, in this especially crazy of circumstances, they have become ours in turn. We must get right up close to their discomfort and welcome it with open arms, however strangely it manifests. We must get down on our hands and knees and pray at the altar of legos and blocks and dolls and finger paint. We must lose ourselves in the endless rapture of meditative play, humble disciples at the feet of the masters who bear the wisdom of living in the present moment.

For additional reading:

Rebekka Helford is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Los Angeles, California. With over a decade of experience working with parents and young children, Rebekka specializes in short-term intensive parenting consultation, using a variety of tools including home, office, and school visits to help families navigate developmental hiccups and get back on track. Virtual visits now available!

Click here to schedule an appointment or contact Rebekka with a question – who knows, she might even answer it in her next post!

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