COVID-19: Social distancing with young children


Emma just celebrated her second birthday, and she has been working on the usual things that children start to master at this age: potty training, making friends, exerting her will through both actions and words, and generally enjoying life as the center of attention for both her parents and grandparents. Like everyone else in Maryland, Emma’s life changed suddenly with the coronavirus stay-at-home order that was issued on March 30. There is no more day care and her parents work from home while caring for her. Her grandparents visit, but only outside and only from a distance – there are no more hugs and there is no more sitting in her grandfather’s lap while he reads stories.

A toddler plays outside. SbytovaMN/iStock/Getty Images Plus

One afternoon a few weeks ago, Emma was looking out the window when she saw her friend, Max, walk by with his parents. Before her parents could stop her, Emma bolted out the door, and she and little Max wrapped each other in a tight embrace. Their parents snapped a photo of the smiling toddlers hugging before they separated the children. The photo is adorable, but as all struggle with social distancing, the poignance of two innocent toddlers in a forbidden embrace is a bit heartbreaking.

Dr. Miller is coauthor of “Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.

Dr. Dinah Miller

Everyone who has ever observed children knows that social distancing is not in their nature. Children play, they hug, they wrestle and tackle and poke, and sometimes even bite. And every student of social psychology has been taught about Harry Harlow’s experiments with rhesus macaques who were separated from their mothers and given access to an inanimate object to serve as a surrogate mother. The Harlow studies, while controversial, were revolutionary in demonstrating that early interactions with both a mother and with playmates were essential in the development of normal social relationships.

Regine Galanti, PhD, is a clinical psychologist at Long Island Behavioral Psychology, Cedarhurst, N.Y., who specializes in the treatment of anxiety and behavior problems. With young children she uses parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT) to help build relationships and discipline. Dr. Galanti said: “I don’t think we’re well prepared as a field to answer questions about the long-term effects of social distancing. If you need young children to socially distance, the responsibility has to fall on the adults. It’s important to explain to children what’s going on and to be honest in a developmentally appropriate way.”

Dr. Galanti has noticed that the issues that people had before COVID-19 are exacerbated by the stress of the current situation. “But people are telling me they are too overwhelmed to seek treatment, and that’s unfortunate because the parents’ anxieties trickle down to the kids. What we do know is that young children thrive on structure.”

Tovah P. Klein, PhD, is the author of “How Toddlers Thrive” (Touchstone, 2015) and is the director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development in Manhattan. “When this started, we thought we would be closed for a few weeks,” Dr. Klein said. “We wanted to maintain a connection to the children, so we made videos for the parents to show to the kids, just to say ‘We’re still here.’ But as time went on and we realized it was going to be a while, we felt it was important to provide connection, so we launched a virtual program.”

Dr. Klein said that the teachers meet with their classes of 13 2-year-olds over Zoom, and when they first started, she asked the teachers to try to meet for 10 minutes. They are now meeting for 40 minutes twice a week. The children like seeing their teachers in their homes and they like seeing each other. In addition, the teachers make videos to send home and they are currently working on one to demystify masks. “We’re working on normalizing masks and showing children that when you put the mask on, you’re still there underneath.”

The center has existed for 48 years. There have been struggles for some of the children who attend; some of the parents have been hospitalized with the virus, and some work on the front line and so parents may be living away from a child.

“We’ve seen more challenging behaviors during this time, more tantrums, toileting issues, night awakenings, and more fragility. But as the new normal takes hold, things are settling in. Parents have been good about getting new routines and it helps if parents can handle their own stress,” Dr. Klein said. She also pointed out that for parents working at home while caring for their children, this can be particularly difficult on a young child. “The child knows the parent is home, but isn’t spending time with him, and he sees it as a rejection.”

Margaret Adams, MD, is a child psychiatrist in Maryland who works with very young children and their parents. She says that some of the children are thriving with the extra attention from their parents. “I often have seen difficulties with readjustment to the routine of separations to day care after a family vacation of a week, or sometimes even a weekend, even for those young ones who seem to love the social aspects of day care. I think it is likely a big impact will come upon return, depending on the developmental stage of the child,” Dr. Adams noted.

Despite the hardships of the moment, all three experts expressed hopefulness about the future for these children.

“Young children are super-resilient and that’s the blessing of this,” Dr. Galanti said. “I think they will be okay.”

Emma is home for now with her parents, who are expecting another child soon. Her mother notes: “The days are long and balancing work is an impossible challenge, but being with Emma has been a total blessing, and when would I ever have this much time to spend with my kid? She’s at such a fun age – so curious and adventurous – it’s amazing to watch her language and skills progress. I wish we weren’t in the midst of a pandemic, but Emma is definitely the bright spot.”

Dr. Miller is coauthor with Annette Hanson, MD, of “Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016). She has a private practice and is assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins, both in Baltimore. Dr. Miller has no disclosures.

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