COVID-19, Our Children, and Their Loss of Touch

How will COVID-19's proscriptions on touching affect our children?

Posted May 19, 2020

A child psychiatrist friend and I were recently discussing how her adult daughter and 3-year-old granddaughter came to visit her in her backyard. They were masked and stayed six feet away.

The child, who throughout her infancy and right up until the appearance of COVID-19 had been picked-up and soothed and coddled by her loving grandmother, now found herself sternly disciplined for repeatedly running over to be picked up by her.

How will this sudden interdiction of grandmotherly hugs, kisses, and nurturing impact this child? And more generally, what effect will the social distancing that surely will be imposed on child-to-child contact have on children in the months and years to come?

I approach these questions by drawing upon my understanding of the critical importance of effective parental nurturing in establishing an infant’s neural pathways of connection, and the follow-on role of inter-child, non-sibling free play in instilling socialization skills in young children.   

Humans are small-pod herd mammals, like certain of the great apes, elephants, and the cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises). Each of these species suckles and nurtures their young, and their offspring press against them for comforting and connection. Humans, of course, do far more holding and touching of our young and we do so over a much longer time. We invest years in holding, hugging, kissing, bathing, and dressing our offspring—all in response to the identical soothing touch we ourselves enjoyed as infants. 

Thanks to contemporary brain imaging techniques, we now know that the physiological effect of parental loving touch is the biochemical imprinting of the neural pathways of connection that children later use to approach and bond with others. We humans, in other words, actively train our offspring to seek soothing and loving touch in their connections with others. These activities are very much required for the survival of our species—just as other species actively train their young in the skillsets they will need to keep safe from predators, hunt for food, and find their way to water.  

If phase one of learning how to connect is an infant’s experience of loving parental— (and grandparental!)—soothing touch, phase two involves the critically important social lessons children learn from each other during free play and unstructured activities. This is where they learn and hone their social skills: how to become included in a circle of friends, how to survive the pain of rejection, and how to recognize and deal with bullies.

Remember those thousands of hours spent interacting with other children in the school hallways, at recess, on the playfield, on your neighborhood streets, and in those endless summers of childhood? Think about how physical those interactions were—the running together, the holding of hands, the pushing and shoving, and then, later, that first kiss. The playful wrestling and nipping at each other of young puppy and kitten littermates provides is a parallel to the physical horseplay of human children. That’s just the kind of mammal we are.

What lessons about interpersonal connection will my friend’s small grandchild learn (or fail to learn) where fear has been introduced around being close to and embracing her grandmother? Following on, what relational skill-building will this child miss when social distancing and non-touching rules and norms control her play with other children in the years to come?  

These new rules and norms will likely add to the sense of disconnection that already plagues our youth, and on some level, it may even instill an element of a fear-based aversion to physical closeness and touching. The importance of addressing these issues and developing clinical strategies to deal with them comes into even sharper focus when we realize that recent studies have reported that the loneliest age group in our society is not our seniors, as one might expect, but our young adults: the nation’s 75 million millennials (now aged 23 through 37) and Generation Z adults (aged 18 to 22) now score as the loneliest US demographic.[1]

References

[1] CIGNA 2018 U.S. Loneliness Index, https://cigna.com/assets/docs/newsroom/ loneliness-survey-2018-fact-sheet.pdf.