What Happens When Kids Don’t See Their Peers for Months?

“Socializing is a crucial part of kids growing up. The pandemic brought it to a halt. Had the spring of 2020 gone as planned, a day in the life of an average child would have meant actual classrooms, baseball games, middle-school plays, and birthday parties where kids ate too much cake instead of waving from the back seat as a parent drove them past their friend’s house, honking the horn. There would have been jokes and whispers in hallways, cafeterias, gyms, and school buses. As he finished his junior year of high school, my 17-year-old son, Alex, didn’t just miss engineering projects; he missed walking to school with Charlie, grabbing lunch with Johnny or Callan, perfecting his jump shot with Evan and Elliott. He should have been going to movies on Friday nights and flirting at parties on Saturday nights.

Time with other children is a crucial piece of growing up. Relationships with peers are how kids learn about cooperation, trust, and loyalty, as well as how to not just receive support from their parents, but also give it to others. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic and the measures that parents, schools, and governments have put in place to limit its spread, millions of children across the United States are missing out on friendship. Summer doesn’t necessarily promise much relief, as plans for camp and other activities, such as Alex’s travel basketball tournaments, are also disrupted.

The consequences of being cooped up with parents and siblings depend on age, home environment, and personality. But the principles of child development do suggest what sorts of responses are natural and which are more worrisome. They also predict which children might be having the hardest time and why.

When schools first closed because of COVID-19, Sarah LeClair did not think that some time away from his second-grade classroom would be so bad for her son, Jeremy. “At first we had the idea he could play outside. We could do assignments slowly, at his pace, and not trap him at the kitchen table all day,” LeClair told me. But after a few weeks, Jeremy, who is an only child, was clearly lonely. Both LeClair and her husband are teachers in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and spent much of their days this spring teaching online. “We don’t have any neighbors even that he could talk to over the fence,” LeClair said. “He was desperate for human contact.”

Jeremy’s solution was to sit in his mother’s office while she taught Dickens and Shakespeare to high-school juniors. “He had no idea what we were talking about,” LeClair said. “But he was [missing] that let’s-sit-on-the-rug-and-talk-about-our-goals-for-the-day kind of feeling. He hangs out and sits on the floor in my office just to hear kids talking.”

Being isolated at home for months is a very different prospect for an 8-year-old than it is for an 18-year-old. Even kids of the same age have different interests, needs, and personalities, and their responses to quarantine will be different too. Some children who dealt with bullying or social anxiety prior to the pandemic might have found social distancing to be a relief. Not everyone actually wanted to go to prom. But others with mental-health issues or a less-than-happy home environment are more likely to suffer from being out of school or camp. “It’s age-dependent, but more so it depends on what actually happens to kids when they are at home,” Stephanie Jones, a developmental psychologist at Harvard, told me. “Little kids, in particular, are barometers of family stress.”

The good news is that children—especially young children—are surprisingly resilient as long as they have at least one supportive adult in their life. Preschoolers and kids in the early elementary years need their parents more than they need their friends. That’s encouraging, since virtual interactions with peers don’t work for many of the youngest kids. Ryan McGillen, a 37-year-old divorced father in Clinton Township, Michigan, learned that lesson when he tried to set up Zoom sessions for his 4-year-old son, Max, and his preschool classmates. They devolved into “13 kids all screaming at once,” McGillen told me.

“The most important thing that all children need is a sense of safety,” Jack Shonkoff, a pediatrician who directs Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, told me. “The younger you are, the more that sense of safety comes from adults who care for you.” Some of that security comes from routine. Children “are very reliant upon consistent, predictable experiences,” Jones said. Even small changes in routine can show up in children’s behavior. For example, when McGillen and his ex-wife arranged for Max to spend the day at one home and the night at the other, to better balance working remotely and parenting, Max started to throw more tantrums. Now Max spends his days and nights in the same home and has a visual schedule as well. His parents are hoping that the return to his usual routine will help Max regain his equilibrium.”

Read the full article by Lydia Denworth here.

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