COVID-19 and Fear in Our Children

Psychologists are worried about the effects of physical distancing.

Posted Jun 05, 2020

At the beginning of the week, a reporter emailed saying,

I’m launching Monday morning with a kind of odd psychology question. I’m wondering whether you would have any ideas about this.

A friend of mine has a grandson aged about two and he says that all our distancing is making the child very afraid of strangers. Every time someone comes near them in the street the child is told to keep away. He wonders whether there will be a group of children who are affected in the longer term.

That make any sense to you?

My response was immediate. Yes, it makes sense, and it’s deeply concerning.

Relatedness or intimacy needs are foundational to human well-being. Anything that serves to disrupt our ability to fulfill these needs is a potential problem. This is particularly true for younger children for at least two reasons. First, young children have yet to develop the cognitive capacity to make sense of things like physical isolation, at least without our help (more on this later). Second, things that we learn early in life are very powerful psychologically. Although early experiences are not destiny, it can be difficult to change habitual responses that we develop as children.

So, as we necessarily create distance between ourselves and others to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus and protect our physical health, we simply can’t ignore the effects on our psychological health.

Interestingly, I had a lot of response to that brief newspaper article.

After reading the article, one colleague wrote to me to say, “Did I tell you about the incident in which my son and I were playing on the driveway and he saw someone approaching the base of it from the sidewalk… he ran up the driveway yelling, 'Human!!!' It would be funny if it wasn’t devastating.”

I couldn’t agree more, it would be funny if it wasn’t so disturbing or devastating as my colleague noted. This single anecdote speaks volumes about the effects this “living experiment” we’re in now is having on our children.

At the same time, there’s reason to be worried about all of us, including grandparents.

Another colleague wrote to me saying, “I’m worried about my little fella but I think he’s still young enough now that he doesn’t really understand. It’s torture for my poor parents to have to run away from him when he gets close to them outside!”

And, these aren’t the only grandparents I heard about. An older retired neuroscientist whom I respect deeply wrote to me to say,

“I worry a little about my grandson, as his father is extremely paranoid about the problem and even we [grandparents] are not allowed to hang out with them. Relatively extreme isolation. There is no question that many young people will internalize this situation and suffer for it for years. There are many who do this naturally and suffer unnecessarily over nothing—let alone the virus. Oh well. I will likely miss much of the downstream effect.”

This troubles me in a number of ways (including imagining a world without this dear colleague and friend). First, the response to the virus has created a diversity of opinion among us to the point where some of us are seen as irresponsible or promiscuous, while others (as is the case here) are seen as “extremely paranoid.” This is as confusing for our children as it is for us, and we’re only just beginning in some ways to sort out what is appropriate, all things considered. Teens in particular take note of this variation, and the often-heard chorus is so familiar, “Why can’t I see my friends? Their parents let them.”

Second, my sage colleague makes it clear that there is no question that many young people will suffer later due to these experiences. And, as he says, many of us suffer unnecessarily over nothing which clearly makes the point that individual differences are important here too. Although some children may be able to shake this off when things come back to “normal” (whatever that may be), others will not be so resilient, at least not without our help.

This really brings me to the crux of the matter for this post. Although it’s certainly possible to write at some length about the developmental issues at stake here, what my main interest is (and perhaps yours as well if you’re taking the time to read this) is what we can do to help mitigate the effects that are so obvious to my psychological colleagues with these examples from their own lives.

As with all developmental matters, we need to “scaffold” children’s experiences in ways appropriate to their development at the time. This means that younger children have to be shown that while we need to distance ourselves by six feet from other humans, they are not in fact scary. We do this quite naturally when children encounter things in the wild that might at first be misunderstood and seen as scary. For example, the first thing I thought of when my colleague shared his story of his son running and yelling “human!!!” was if he had seen a snake. Of course, most snakes are far from dangerous, and even those that could be a threat are safe from a distance. We explain and show our children this with our own response (or at least I hope we do).

In our pandemic circumstances, I think we have to pay special attention to how we model our reactions to our children. We need to show them that distance doesn’t mean fear, and that not being able to hug right now doesn’t mean a lack of love or affection. Most of all, as a psychologist, parent and fellow human being, I believe it’s incumbent on us all to embrace our common humanity and look forward with optimism and hope. If we don’t, I expect our children won’t either, and they will suffer even more.

Blogger's Note: Although my research focus and blog is about procrastination, I began my career teaching developmental psychology, so this topic is important to me as a psychologist and a parent. I'll return to posts related to procrastination next. Lots of pandemic procrastination to write about!