It’s a lonely time for many of us. An April 2020 study analyzed Google Trends data to discover that searches related to loneliness, boredom, and worry have significantly increased since the coronavirus pandemic began to take hold across the world.
But these feelings of isolation are particularly concerning when they affect children. A 2015 study in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry found that social isolation is associated with a greater risk of mental health problems in children, including symptoms of depression and anxiety. A new research review in the same journal warns that the effects of drawn-out loneliness may resonate in children’s lives for almost a decade, even if they seem to be doing okay right now.
Why Kids Need Social Connections
“Children are social creatures,” says Edwin Williamson, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt in Nashville. “This is a major change in the social patterns of kids throughout this whole country, and really through the world.” Dr. Williamson explains that in normal settings, kids spend a great deal of time with other kids every day: at school, doing extracurricular activities, playing with siblings or neighborhood friends. “Kids do typically spend a lot more time with other kids than adults spend with other adults,” he says.
Think about the way your own days are structured (in pre-pandemic times). You get up, help your kids off to school, camp, or daycare, and go about your workday, interacting with the people closest to you at the office. That’s not quite the same as your kids, who are accustomed to spending hours on end socializing with peers their own age. “The change from typical life—seeing lots of kids every day—to quarantine life is a bigger shift for kids than adults,” Dr. Williamson says. “So, I think the [mental health] effects would be bigger because the change is bigger.”
Isolation Over Time
The longer this pandemic stretches out, the more likely your kids are to feel the effects of these changes on their mood and happiness levels. Authors of the new loneliness study found that the duration of loneliness—rather than the severity of it—is a strong predictor of mental health problems in children and adolescents. Maria Loades, DClinPsy, senior lecturer at the Department of Psychology at the University of Bath in Bath, England, was a primary researcher on this review. “As disease containment and social distancing measures are ongoing globally, young people may be experiencing protracted loneliness,” she says. “This [research] suggests that ongoing loneliness is particularly problematic and indicates that we should do everything we can to reduce loneliness within the limitations of disease containment measures.”
In other words, the longer children are isolated from their social circles, the more likely they are to struggle with depression or anxiety, even up to a decade later. Loades and her team were examining research from years past, and only time will tell whether this pandemic affects children in the ways they might expect. Still, it’s important for parents to be aware of their children’s vulnerability during this time.
How Loneliness Shows Up in Kids
Sometimes, it will be obvious to you that your children are struggling. They may directly tell you that they’re missing their friends or wishing they could go to summer camp. They may share their worries about keeping people safe. “You see a lot of kids asking questions about the virus, coming up with fantastical ideas about their risk or other people’s risk,” Dr. Williamson says. “It’s amazing what kids will absorb.”
Even if you think your kids are oblivious to the effects of the pandemic on their lives, look more closely. “Some kids will have emotions we typically connect with loneliness: sadness, depression, withdrawal, things like that,” Dr. Williamson notes. “Other kids express it by acting out and having more disruptive behavior.” A lot of times, behaviors that seem like normal elements of childhood may actually be signs that your child is anxious or upset.
The National Institute of Health lists the following behaviors that may mean your child is dealing with psychological stress:
- They can’t sit quietly
- They are increasingly irritable
- They talk often about their fears and worries (such as the virus)
- They have nightmares or sleep problems
- They have frequent stomachaches or headaches without a clear cause
If you’ve seen an increase in these symptoms since the pandemic hit, your child may be feeling scared or lonely due to the current crisis. The good news? Everyone is experiencing the effects of COVID-19 together, which could help your child feel less alone–especially if you talk with them about it. “There’s a joint experience of this,” Dr. Williamson explains. “If a kid is isolated by themselves, that might have a more severe impact, whereas they can look around and see that everyone’s in the same boat.”
How Parents Can Help
Besides talking to your kids about what they’re seeing in the news, you can also help facilitate more social connections for them. “Our findings highlight the need to focus on enabling social connection between children and young people in every way possible in the current context and as lockdown eases,” Loades notes. “Reconnecting socially, including through play, should be prioritized.”
Time with friends may look different these days, but that doesn’t mean you and your family can’t connect with other people. “I hear so many families doing family Zooms, social distanced playdates, and social distanced family gatherings,” Dr. Williamson says. Schedule times for your kids to talk on the phone or FaceTime with their closest friends. If you feel safe enough to do so, plan a socially distanced picnic with another family. Kids can play outdoor games where no one touches each other, such as charades or Simon Says.
Encourage your child to do things for others to allay their fears about COVID-19. The CDC recommends having your child write letters or cards to family members they can’t visit in person, or to people in the community who are especially vulnerable (such as elderly folks in nursing homes). This will give them a specific act of service to feel proud of and connected to.
In this challenging time, it’s more important than ever to check in on your kids and to have real conversations with them about what they’re feeling. “In the initial phase of the quarantine, we were all just so focused on quarantining and being separate,” Dr. Williamson recalls. “Now in this next phase, we can think about, ‘How can we actually be social during COVID-19 quarantine?’” We may be in this for the long haul, as the earliest potential vaccine isn’t expected until the end of the year, so it’s time to get creative about finding joy in the midst of it all.