Will the COVID-19 Shutdown Have a Lasting Impact on My Cooped-Up Kids?

"Is the coronavirus still here?" "Is the coronavirus here at night?" A childhood trauma expert helps me answer my toddler's burning questions and my own.

My kids spend a lot of time looking longingly out the window during the coronavirus shutdown.

My kids have spent a lot of time looking longingly out the window during the coronavirus shutdown. Photo: Brian Howard

During our second week stuck at home, Georgia, my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, turned to me and said, “Daddy, I stopped picking my nose. Can I go back to school now?”

It seems hard to remember at this point, but in the weeks before all but essential/life-sustaining businesses stopped, when we were all still taking our kids to daycare and when going into the office was “optional,” we’d been drilling our daughter on what she needed to do to help stop the spread of this new thing called “the coronavirus”: Wash your hands often; sing “Happy Birthday” twice while you do; don’t touch your face; and please — please — stop picking your nose.

It all seems so naive in retrospect.

That wasn’t the first time Georgia has referenced the coronavirus.

“Is the coronavirus still here?” she’d asked my wife one day early on.

“Is the coronavirus here at night?” she asked a few days later.

And it wouldn’t be the last.

“When the coronavirus is gone, I’m going to _______,” she says almost daily.

But the nose-picking question was different. When my daughter, who, yes, had indeed stopped picking her nose, let it slip that on some level, she was processing all this change — no more playing with her school friends, no more playdates, no more playgrounds, no more visits with her cousins or her nonna — as some sort of punishment, I started to worry about her. Or worry about her in a totally new way.

Georgia turned three and a half during this strange societal fugue. (We even had a half-birthday celebration — any excuse for cake when you’re in quarantine.) And while I don’t think she really grasps what the novel coronavirus is, she’s a smart kid. Unlike her 11-month-old sister, who just seems stoked to have Mom and Dad around all the time, Georgia gets that things aren’t quite right. But she doesn’t have the language to express what’s bothering her. And so she does toddler things like throwing tantrums, refusing naps, bullying her little sister, regressing on potty training — all the things that ensure that any post-COVID baby boom will be the fruit of first-time parents exclusively.

It all got me thinking about how kids will process this moment — scary and boring, claustrophobic and unknowably expansive, repetitive and unpredictable. Will kids be traumatized? Will their socialization be stunted? Will there be generation-defining impacts? And what can parents do to mitigate this moment?

Rather than just sit and ugly-cry through the CNN/Sesame Street kids town hall, I decided I needed to know more. So I reached out to childhood trauma expert Diondra Brown, a child and family therapist and the coordinator of the early childhood program at Penn’s Hall-Mercer Community Mental Health Center, to help me address some of my more persistent concerns.

Philadelphia magazine: I’m curious about how this weird time will affect kids of different ages. I suspect that my 11-month-old will be largely unfazed by a few months of quarantine, but my three-and-a-half-year-old, who hasn’t seen her school friends in going on two months and isn’t getting outside to play and run around much at all … we’re seeing and sensing that she’s having a lot of feelings that she doesn’t quite know what to do with.

Diondra Brown: You might be surprised at how perceptive even your 11-month-old may be about the change in routine. I’m sure mommy and daddy are home all the time and that wasn’t the case before. With anything that is an emergent life event or a trauma, we do see stress responses in children, and they vary based on age. Children who are three and under, it might be more crying, more temper tantrums, they might have some separation anxiety and just be a bit more irritable. Children who are toddlers, ages three to five, you might see regressive behaviors. Children who were potty trained and/or on a schedule, you could see total regression in those behaviors, and they might start expressing feelings of worry. And for a lot of children that age, their emotional language is pretty much: I’m happy, I’m sad, I’m mad. They might not even have the language for the worries that they’re feeling. Children who are in middle childhood, it might be that they’re having a really hard time concentrating on their schoolwork, or maybe their sleep has changed. In teenagers, you see the same thing, but also a lot more of the psychosomatic symptoms, like appetite, headaches, things like that. And it’s really hard for children of any age to be separated from their peers.

We’ve definitely seen some regressive behaviors. And our toddler is also taking out her frustrations on her little sister in ways she hadn’t previously. Is there a reason kids regress like this?

Their routine has been highly disrupted or, like, just ended, especially for working parents who are trying to balance giving their children the structure and attention that they were used to getting in school or preschool and being a working parent. And we know that children thrive on structure and security and predictability. So when their environment can’t offer them that, they try take to control over what they can take control over, and what they can take control over is their body, right? So that’s how it manifests for young children, especially those who might not have the language to express, “I’m upset, I’m frustrated. I’m worried. I’m confused.” They might not have that language, but they can control their body.

Our daughter’s teachers have been doing things to reach out to the kids to maintain connections. One of the teachers does music time via Zoom, and another teacher does story time. Some days, our daughter is engaged; other days, she just wanders off, and sometimes she just slams the laptop shut. One day she told my wife, “Seeing my teacher makes me sad because I miss her.”

This is a point I’ve heard from a lot of parents. Kids are used to having that personal, face-to-face time with their peers and their teachers. When you really think about it, what we’re experiencing in terms of social distancing is really against our human nature. It doesn’t feel good for us to have to interact solely through a screen. The advice I’ve given parents is that a lot of children prefer this technology when it’s projected on the TV. If you have an HDMI cable, that seems to have really made a difference for kids. Also, they can’t, like, shut the TV off like they can close a laptop. But it’s also about finding a balance between what we’re going to quote-unquote enforce upon them in terms of the schedule and allowing them to have some autonomy, because this is a stressful and confusing situation. The other piece of advice that I’ve given to parents is to have a Plan A and a Plan B for all of the structured time of the day. And if a child really isn’t into watching meditation and yoga at one o’clock, maybe you record it for them and try again in a few hours. That enrichment is definitely important, but maybe they’re just not ready to receive it at that time.

I’ve been wondering what going back to school is going to be like — once we’re “back to normal” or we’ve reached some “new normal.”

I know! Because what even is the normal now? I think it’ll be much like the first day of school all over again, right? Relearning routines, finding friend groups, figuring out what their learning style even is, as crazy as that might sound. I’ve been thinking about that a lot. I’m a visual learner as an adult, but the overload that I have from looking at a computer all day — it’s too much, so I’ve actually enjoyed doing tactile things and auditory opportunities for learning. So I think it’ll also be about re-exploring how our children learn. Was looking at the screen all this time a little too much, and will they need to be a bit more hands-on when we transition back to school? I think there’s going to be a learning curve for teachers and for parents; it’s about really being patient and helping the child navigate this new norm as best as you can. I don’t even know what the “new normal” will be. There’s a lot of speculation about whether children will be sitting farther apart in classrooms. Will there be as many group activities? Will face masks be the new norm? I think slowly speaking to children in a developmentally appropriate way about how things may look different based on our most up-to-date information will be the best way to set a child up for success, because the last thing we would want to do is to reintroduce them to what used to be a familiar environment that they were away from for a long time that now looks totally foreign.

What kind of lasting impacts might this time have on this generation of kids?  

I think there are two ways to look at it. There are different kinds of trauma. And I think it will depend on how long this lasts, and the type of traumas, like losing family members or experiencing a more intangible loss, like not celebrating holidays in the same way and being really disconnected and missing out on major milestones in other people’s lives. Research shows us that trauma can affect our brain and our nervous system, and that everyone reacts to trauma differently. It can have effects in the interim, like regression and physical symptoms and temper tantrums. But it could also lead to more serious effects in the future, be it how they handle emotion regulation or stress responses as adults. But I think it’s important to recognize how resilient children are. As caregivers and parents, it’s up to us to really epitomize the hopefulness and helpfulness that this crazy life event could cause. I think about it as, like, “Wow, I wonder how creative this new generation will be when it comes to technology?” Or, “I wonder how thoughtful this new generation will be when it comes to public health and safety and being more aware of the environment and how we interact with one another in a safe and healthy manner?” You could look at it from two perspectives: the possible long-lasting ramifications on their brains and ours, but also how influential this could be in making changes on a global level, so that we’re not faced with something like this again.