How Will Loneliness From the Coronavirus Isolation Affect Children?

Experts can’t say for sure, but attentive parenting and regular (new) routines should help a lot.

A boy plays alone with blocks.
NataliaLeb/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

My husband brought our 3-year-old home from a walk on our sixth (or fifth? Or seventh? What is time?) day of social isolation. “We saw a neighbor and chatted from six feet, and she wouldn’t stop talking to them,” he reported. “I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. I feel like we aren’t enough for her!” We’re not the only ones experiencing a bit of guilt and fear about our kid’s shrinking social circle. If we’re told over and over that going to school is good for kids’ “socialization,” isn’t the converse—lack of school is bad for socialization—also true?

The answer to the question “How will seeing nobody but immediate family affect my child?” is a little unsatisfying: We just don’t know. “We can’t do studies of kids getting raised in complete isolation,” Rachel Busman, senior director of the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute in New York City, said in a phone interview. “It would never get past research boards!” There are some studies of primates being raised without parents—like the famous wire-mother experiments on maternal deprivation, carried out by Harry Harlow in the midcentury period—but what we’re experiencing right now, where kids are confined to small family circles with their parents (and possibly siblings), is nothing like that.

It’s not just that there’s no precedent—we also don’t know what the parameters of the experiment might be. Ellen Braaten, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and the director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program at Mass General Hospital, pointed out over email that many kids experience isolation from their peers for two or three months during a summer vacation, and have good memories of the experience. “If it lasts more than two or three months,” she wrote, “we really don’t have any scientific data to know what to expect, as this is uncharted territory. If an entire season goes by without seeing peers, I think that’s a significant time period for a child.”

From what we know about children’s experiences of friendship at different ages, it seems safe to say that my own fears about preschool playmate deprivation may be overblown—it’s older kids who may be sadder about the situation. Karen Bierman, a professor of psychology and human development and family studies and the director of the Child Study Center at Penn State, pointed out via email that preschoolers “define friends as ‘someone you play with,’ ” while school-age children begin to describe their friends as a source of affection and support. “Because friendships play a bigger role in the lives of older children than preschoolers, older children are likely to suffer more during this time of social isolation,” Bierman wrote. Adolescents, of course, are probably going to be most “distressed and upset” by the current state of social restriction, since teenagers are so peer-oriented.

I wondered if only children, like ours, might be more at risk from a period of isolation than kids who have siblings. Braaten said she couldn’t find any research on the question. “Kids who are raised with siblings are not really ‘alone’ at this time,” she wrote. “This may come with some negatives, but they are still able to practice things like give-and-take and sharing.” For only a few weeks, only children will probably be fine, “though it might exacerbate some of the negatives that come with being an only-child (feelings of loneliness, being the sole object of attention from the parents).” On the other hand, Braaten wrote, only children may also benefit from having a lot of parental attention during a time like this.

But all of this also really depends on what your child is like, as a person. Multiple experts I spoke with recommended trying to discern how your child is actually feeling, rather than projecting your own feelings of loss or loneliness—so omnipresent at this time—on your child’s experience. (This, I realize now, is probably what we’ve been doing.) “We might assume, ‘They must be so lonely! They must feel so isolated,’ ” but for some kids, they might not actually feel that way, said Busman. “There’s so much individual variation.” Maybe they’re happy about being home; they might like not having to wake up for the bus, or enjoy being around their family for more of the day. “Or some kids might have the opposite reaction!” Busman added. “They might be very upset. And all of that is valid and acceptable.” Kids who have preexisting issues with anxiety or depression might see an “increase in symptoms,” Braaten wrote. “Others might feel less anxious or depressed because they don’t have the stress of school.”

Try to talk to your kid about their experience in a minimalist, searching way. Rather than suggesting what their reaction might be, ask open-ended questions to get at their true feelings. “It’s important to be curious about it,” Busman said, “and say things like, ‘What’s the thing that’s most on your mind right now?’ ” Especially for younger kids who are less verbal, keep track of whether they’re sleeping and eating normally, and whether there are any big changes in behavior. If your verbal kid identifies a problem (“I miss music class”), see if they want to problem-solve the issue (maybe a virtual solution?), or if they just want space to be sad about it with you. For all kids, keeping to some kind of a routine (showering, putting on clothes), going out on walks, and building time into your schedule for family interaction—movie night, cooking together, family games (board or video)—can help a lot.

Preschoolers may not get a whole lot out of Zooming with schoolmates but school-age kids might. Teenagers probably won’t need help with this part of navigating isolation, but for kids who are school age, who might not have experience with virtually communicating with their friends, think about how you can help them connect. Busman, whose 9-year-old recently had a 24-way (!) Zoom with a bunch of camp friends, said that parents should not assume that a call like that just won’t work to provide connection for a kid. “I thought it was going to be a free-for-all and it wasn’t,” she said—in part because adult facilitators were part of the call, pushing and pulling everyone along. “It was a really nice opportunity for him.”

If you’re still a little uneasy with the idea of letting your young teenager use online tools to talk to friends, and wouldn’t have allowed it in an alternate timeline where the coronavirus doesn’t exist, be sure to “think ahead about your comfort level with these different communication options,” Bierman wrote. Consider making a plan with your child to set limits on the time of day and amount of time a kid has to talk with friends. Busman pointed out that there’s a difference between sending a child away into another room to chat with friends and having no sense of what’s going on versus “setting up a play date and having it in the same room as you, where you’re still in earshot.”

The No. 1 most important thing to your child’s sense of well-being right now, a number of experts I interviewed wanted to emphasize, is that you remain as steady as you can. Kids are, as Yale psychologist Dylan Gee wrote in an email, “quite perceptive and sensitive” to parents’ stress. “The most important protective factor that a child can have in a stressful situation is a loving, supportive, consistent caregiver,” Gee, who has studied the way caregivers help children regulate their own stress, pointed out. “In that sense, children are with the very people they need the most during a stressful time.”

Because of kids’ nature—tiny little sponges, soaking up our vibes—caregivers, especially, need to take care of themselves. All of the pieces of advice we’re hearing bandied about for surviving isolation—get outside! Connect virtually! Keep a good sleep schedule! Exercise!—apply double to people who are acting as their kids’ main “person” during this time. Busman suggested parents should strive to expand their sense of who’s in their “village”: It might be your family, in more normal times, but maybe you’re now more in touch with fellow parents of third graders, or neighbors on your street. It all has to be digital, of course—but even that can help.

We don’t know how our kids will remember this period in their young lives, in part because we have no idea how long it will last, or how it will end. But I find myself relieved by the idea that I am privileged to be able to do a lot to keep my child’s world normal. As Dylan Gee emphasized, it’s the most vulnerable families that are the most stressed right now. So I’ll worry about them at 3 a.m., not my kid—who’s going a little feral around the edges but at least is well-fed.