What Happens When Kids Don’t See Their Peers for Months
By Lydia Denworth | June 24th, 2020 | The Atlantic | Topics: Emotions and Relationships, Parenting and Family, Social Behavior
Socializing is a crucial part of 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.
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.
In some ways, the hardest-hit groups are older adolescents and young adults, who are meant to be actively separating from their parents. Instead, they are moving back home. During quarantine, Lisa Acker’s three college-age sons all headed back to their parents’ New Jersey home. Acker has noticed that their social lives have suffered. “If I say, ‘What would you be doing?,’ they say, ‘I’d be going to house parties, dorm parties, concerts. I’d be with my girlfriend,’” she told me. “When they do reach out to people, they have nothing to talk about.”
And everyone stuck at home—who is old enough—should continue to acknowledge that this enforced togetherness is unusual. The Acker boys, for example, have brought their college habits back to New Jersey, making mac and cheese and eggs for dinner at 1 a.m., which led their mother to set some new ground rules in the kitchen. During a tense family moment recently, the oldest son, Ian, 22, who had planned to stay in San Francisco after his college graduation in May, looked at his mother and said, “I’m not even supposed to be here.” She realized he was right. “I thought, That’s so true,” she told me. “Let’s just start with that.”