Young child leaning over the back of an office chair with their head resting on their arms, looking lonely

Social isolation has preyed on everyone’s vulnerabilities, and our children are the silent victims

In my house, social isolation began after my first- and third-graders came home from school on March 12, 2020. We all saw it coming, but we had no idea back then that as we came up on American Independence Day nearly four months later, we would still be holed up together in the three rooms that currently make up our home. 

I had a baby. Two family members died, and one moved to a long-term care facility. Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, my birthday and my daughter’s. My husband’s 40th. All quietly gone by as the doors to schools, amusement areas, and friends’ homes remain closed due to social isolation.

When the stay-at-home orders began, some posed it as an opportunity, a challenge: Bond with your family! Take up a hobby! Learn a new skill! 

Unfortunately, that’s not the way it’s played out for many families who have been in social isolation as long as we have.

Working parents were suddenly left with no childcare, and those who had the fortune to be able to continue employment from home were now charged with caring for and educating for their children while also trying to achieve their job responsibilities. 

Much has already been said about how practically unrealistic that situation was and continues to be. But as the other side of this social isolation grows farther away than we ever could have anticipated back in March, I’ve been reflecting on how my children themselves have changed in these few short months. 

Social isolation has managed to find all our vulnerabilities and exploit them, to the point that all our most troublesome qualities are heightened and, since we can’t leave the house, our healthy coping mechanisms have become close to nonexistent.

For children, this is exceptionally concerning. This is such an essential and impressionable time in their young lives, and I’m beginning to fear when this is all over, when we settle into whatever the new normal looks like for us, they will emerge changed people — and not necessarily for the better.

Social development and relationships suffer when you’re stuck with family day in and day out

For my children, school provided built-in social opportunities that just aren’t there when you’re surrounded by family all the time. Kids don’t get the opportunity to talk through their learning or work on problem solving with other students when their only communication is relegated to a computer screen. Increasingly, they’re able to opt out of the classroom rituals that make them feel like part of a community.

With parks closed and social distancing guidelines in place, there’s no replacement for running around hunting grasshoppers or practicing the newest gymnastics move with a rotating group of other children at recess. 

Sending the kids away in the morning and receiving them in the afternoon also provided a line of demarcation for us adults, a boundary between work time and family time. With all the distraction inherent in helping the kids with their school assignments and otherwise caring for them throughout the day, those boundaries have become extra blurry. Children end up feeling like they’re in the way and interrupting whenever they talk to their parents — because, usually, they are. That’s why adults don’t typically take their children to work with them.

And, after spending all day corralling the kids and trying to persuade (threaten) them into managing themselves from 9–5, it’s pretty hard for parents to be as emotionally available as we want to be in the evenings. Not to mention the work we missed out on during the day that somehow needs to get finished.

Relationships with friends and family members that would typically be nurtured outside of school are also stunted when kids are confined to a nuclear family group. Divides begin to build between us that weren’t there before — divides which are heightened by the differing risk tolerance (and, unfortunately, political beliefs) of different families. Things we parents would have never discussed before become reasons our children can’t see each other now, leading to even more social isolation.

Mental health suffers without coping mechanisms and outside support

I realize not everyone receives mental health support, but for those of us who need it, this is a particularly trying time. Three out of the four members of my family who know how to talk receive some level of outside services, and we have all suffered with not seeing our usual providers in the typical way during this time.

Virtual therapy just isn’t the same as in-person therapy. I know we’re all trying and it’s the best we can do, but trying to establish the deep connection needed for effective therapy just doesn’t work when you’re sitting in your home, surrounded by all your junk.

Therapy time used to be sacred. It used to be a place where you could walk in, close the door, and be alone with someone whose only goal was to help you work through your issues for an hour. During quarantine, it’s become a distracted, disjointed attempt at maintaining the bubble gum and duct tape that holds your sanity together. 

It’s hard to make real progress when your kid, partner, or little sister is banging around on the other side of the computer screen. It’s hard to concentrate when the baby is crying or the doorbell is ringing, even if you know someone else is going to attend to them.

As a result, anxiety and depressive symptoms — in this house, at least — are at an all-time high during social isolation.

Coping mechanisms, meanwhile, are all but forgotten due to our collective heightened state. And when the adults’ coping mechanisms have fallen by the wayside, how can we help our children remember theirs?

Physical activity and nutrition suffer without the routines and opportunities that used to be available

Exercise used to be a non-negotiable in my family. Both my older kids were involved in organized physical activities at least a couple times a week, whether it be gymnastics, softball, dance, or some program put on by our local recreation department. I went to the gym most days and often took the girls with me; my husband exercised and meditated regularly.

We prioritized having a fitness routine, because we know how difficult they can be to re-establish in earnest after a period of inactivity. 

But, with organized sports halted indefinitely, gyms closed, and everyone crammed into the house together, it’s impossible to keep to the routines we had before. Outside activity is weather-dependent and, as with virtual socialization, when no one else is involved, it’s easier for the kids (and, let’s face it: the adults, too) to opt out.

As exercise routines have gone by the wayside, discipline around mealtimes has also gradually eroded. 

Anyone avoiding crowded places so as to protect themselves and family members from possible infection with the coronavirus is at the behest of grocery delivery services, which are convenient but can be problematic. Delivery windows might be a week into the future, and by the time the order finally arrives, it is often missing some key items.

Proper produce and meat have been especially hard to come by. Snack items, on the other hand, are readily available and require no preparation, leading us all to fill our bellies with unsatisfying junk and value a balanced menu and set mealtimes less and less.

It seems all our efforts over the years at intentionally embedding fitness and healthy eating into our lives have been thwarted, and I truly worry for my children’s health.

Educational development suffers without trained professionals with consistent expectations

Many parents have been frustrated with schools’ and districts’ implementation of distance learning during social isolation, particularly the fact that kids of many ages can’t really be independent with it. The most concerning aspect, though, is that every district — and, many times, every school within a district and every teacher within a single school — has implemented it differently.

Special education, counseling and related services were likewise unevenly implemented and, in most cases, can’t take place in any meaningful way online anyway. Social groups aren’t effective when kids can’t be in the same room together. One-on-one or small-group instruction often takes for granted that students are in a classroom with the necessary materials; parents have varying ability to procure or print these materials, and the practicality of conducting such sessions is seriously limited when the teacher can’t observe the student. Counseling relies on a sense of privacy it’s nearly impossible to achieve with the rest of the family around.

And this is all assuming the technology works flawlessly and kids are able to focus and attend to it for a sustained period. Many kids with various learning differences can’t.

And, let’s not forget, traditional classroom teachers were trained to teach in a traditional classroom. Remote teaching is an entirely different beast with its own set of benefits and challenges, and the learning curve has been steeper for some than for others.

The net result of all this is that kids are going to start the next school year in vastly different places academically — even more so than usual — and many will be missing skills from the previous grade level that have been taken for granted in years past. The need for remediation will be greater but at the same time less predictable than usual because teachers didn’t have the chance to properly assess kids’ strengths and needs prior to the end of the school year. 

And kids with special learning or socio-emotional needs, like my nine-year-old, will suffer the most.

Whatever the new normal is, it’s going to be harder than we expect for our kids to fit into it

At the beginning of quarantine, many of us thought we were walking into a brief respite from the norm. For a couple weeks, we thought, we could relax our rigid schedules, take a break from our exhaustingly persistent obligations, and even recharge.

For a hundred thirty days and counting, we’ve all been living in a kind of social isolation survival mode, and it’s taken a toll on all of us. 

But while our sights are set on how to get through each day, our children are getting more dysregulated by the minute. Our day-to-day maintenance has come at the expense of the structure and support kids need to continue growing into balanced, well-adjusted humans. 

My girls each have different strengths and needs. My oldest, an athlete who has a learning disability and is at strong risk for anxiety and depression, won’t struggle with her diet or exercise but will probably have anxiety attacks when expected to return to school, even though that’s what she desperately wants. Her little sister, who is ahead of her peers academically but prefers more sedentary activities and refuses to eat fruit or vegetables, will return to school just fine but likely refuse to engage in the sports she used to enjoy or eat the balance meals I send with her.

So it will be with many children.

Kids who were anxious about going to school before will be a hundred times more anxious when they have to go back after being gone for months on end.

Kids who had trouble being motivated into physical activity will be even more reluctant to rejoin their sports and activities.

Kids who were behind academically or socially will return even farther behind.

Children are resilient, but this is time they’ll never get back. As our social isolation stretches farther than we ever expected, I’m increasingly concerned their paths will be forever altered once we emerge into the world once more.