At the start of World War II, millions of children were evacuated from London and other cities and sent to live with foster parents in the English countryside. What happened to these children became a subject of study for psychoanalyst Anna Freud, who wrote in a 1943 book that young people who remained with their families through the bombing “were much less upset” than those who were sent away.
Her contemporary John Bowlby studied children who spent extended stays in hospitals, apart from their families. The research helped inform his influential “attachment theory,” which emphasizes the bond between parent and child and the harms that come from separating them.
Those studies are part of a large body of research on what happens when kids are separated from their parents. But what about the situation unfolding now, as the coronavirus quarantine isolates children not from their primary caregivers but from their peers, teachers and everyone else in their lives?
“We don’t know yet,” Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, an anthropologist and primatologist and professor emerita at the University of California-Davis, told me. “This is a kind of a drastic experiment in progress.”
Kids are without playmates. Parents are disconnected from other adults who can help them cope. Loneliness may be amplified. There are myriad ways in which our national quarantine could affect kids but little research on it. The National Science Foundation is fast tracking grants to help researchers study these sorts of questions.
“This is a kind of a drastic experiment in progress”Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, professor emerita, University of California-Davis
For younger kids, in particular, missing out on play with peers could take a toll. Play facilitates cognitive development, said James Coan, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia who studies the neuroscience of human connection. And yet “adults are not very good playmates,” he told me. “They are boring, they are impatient and they have other things to do.” Children who don’t have siblings, a category whose ranks have grown in recent decades, may be particularly vulnerable.
Through play and other peer interactions, children also develop social skills and a sense of morality, said Kenneth Rubin, a professor of human development and quantitative methodology at the University of Maryland. “Kids need peers,” he said. “One of the things about being stuck at home as a little kid is that you might not experience these essential interactive experiences that lead to the development of close relationships outside of the family.”
It’s not clear what difference just a few weeks or months of isolation will make. With any luck, social distancing will help halt the spread of the coronavirus and kids will be able to gradually return to their routines. Still, Hrdy points to a study by cognitive neuroscientist Arjen Stolk in which he found that kids who attended day care were able to interact more effectively with peers than kids who didn’t. In the study, 5-year-olds were asked to use non-verbal communication to guide children of different ages through a video game; those who’d been in day care were better able to tailor their interactions. “It didn’t take that long in day care for it to have those effects,” said Hrdy.
“Adults are not very good playmates. They are boring, they are impatient and they have other things to do.”James Coan, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia
The coronavirus isolation could also affect kids by eroding their parents’ ability to cope, researchers told me. One of the reasons kids can be challenging is because their prefrontal cortexes aren’t developed, so they aren’t able to regulate their emotions, noted Coan. Parents have to help children do that work of emotional regulation, which can be exhausting. This is where day care providers, teachers, friends, aunts and uncles come in. Not only do they take kids off the hands of their parents and allow them to recharge, but they also provide emotional support and help parents work through stress.
“My worry is that kids in this current pandemic are going to suffer to the degree that parents are isolated from the social networks that regulate their negative emotions,” said Coan.
Deprived of access to larger networks, parents must support each other, he said. Single parents also need to try to find ways to take breaks from parenting to the extent possible. If this crisis continues for months, adults risk experiencing what’s known as “allostatic load,” in which their emotional resources are depleted from prolonged exposure to stress. “If I burn through those resources more quickly, I will not have the resources to leverage when it comes to my child wondering why they can’t go to school, and not being consolable when they can’t see their friends,” said Coan.
“Yes, social isolation can generate loneliness, and loneliness can be bad for mental health and wellbeing. But first that’s not going to apply to all children because some are more susceptible than others, and social support from others can temper some of those risks.”Jay Belsky, the Robert M. and Natalie Reid Dorn professor of human development at the University of California-Davis
All the researchers I spoke to stressed, however, that children’s experiences with the coronavirus pandemic will vary greatly. “The only thing that affects us all the same way is getting dropped head first from the 14th floor,” said Jay Belsky, the Robert M. and Natalie Reid Dorn professor of human development at the University of California-Davis. An only child, or a child who doesn’t get along well with siblings, may be more vulnerable than a kid who has a sibling playmate. Children of anxiety-prone, socially isolated parents may be more vulnerable than kids of parents who are skilled at helping each other cope. Kids who were lonely before the pandemic, and already felt that the world was against them, may be struggling more acutely now.
“Yes, social isolation can generate loneliness, and loneliness can be bad for mental health and wellbeing,” said Belsky. “But first that’s not going to apply to all children because some are more susceptible than others, and social support from others can temper some of those risks.”
Virtual connections can also mitigate isolation, but not all kids have access to Wi-Fi and other tools that enable them to connect with their friends and extended family. “If I were to pour government into anything right now it would be Wi-Fi for everybody and get everybody a laptop,” said the University of Maryland’s Rubin. And while it’s relatively easy for adults to hold Zoom cocktail hours and exchange endless streams of text messages, some activities – like play – are harder to replicate virtually.
“Covid presents us with all sorts of wonderfully perverse ways of studying the significance of relationships.”Kenneth Rubin, professor of human development and quantitative methodology at the University of Maryland
Still, Belsky said, “We don’t want to catastrophize.” Kids, and parents, have all sorts of ways of compensating for loneliness. It will be a long time before we know the effects of this unprecedented period of isolation. Said Rubin, “Covid presents us with all sorts of wonderfully perverse ways of studying the significance of relationships.”
Certainly, the coronavirus is already reminding us how important we all are to each other. “As a species we’re not really adapted to reliance on one person or even two people to raise us,” said Coan. “We are suddenly seeing in very stark terms what a silly proposition it is to say kids just need their parents. It’s not true.”
This story on effects of social isolation was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.