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Social Isolation is Harming Children

You're tired, you work long hours, you're burned out, fatigued, and when you come home at the end of the day you would rather watch Netflix then interact with other people. You may still have compassion fatigue from the aftermath of living through the pandemic. You aren't alone. Many of us are feeling this way.

We stopped seeing friends and family on a regular basis when we had to quarantine. Again, and again. Eventually, not seeing anyone outside our immediate family became the new normal. This has led to a worsening epidemic of loneliness in our society.

In a 2021 study, nearly half of Americans surveyed reported recent symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder, and 10% of respondents felt their mental health needs were not being met. Rates of anxiety, depression, and substance use disorder have increased since the beginning of the pandemic. And people who have mental illnesses or disorders and then get COVID-19 are more likely to die than those who don’t have mental illnesses or disorders.

Everyone is feeling the effects of a toxic level of chronic stress, overwhelm and burnout. While in some instances this has led to positive changes, like talking about mental health in the workplace and a focus on employee wellness, other things have gotten much worse.

During the pandemic, both child abuse and domestic violence increased. When you put people in a pressure cooker for too long, some of them are bound to snap. This can lead toward violent outbursts aimed at others, things like the politicization of mask-wearing, and increased suicidal ideation.

As hard as things have been for us as adults, things have been hard for kids too. They are growing up in frightening times, the likes of which many of us have never experienced before. We probably grew up feeling more safe than they do, and having more social activities.

By taking away their normalcy of things like going to school and having a routine, as well as parents having to care for children while working at home, children can face behavioral and social consequences as well.

According to Unicef, some consequences to children with regard to the pandemic are:

  • Children have missed out on normal developmental opportunities throughout the pandemic.

  • Their social skills are out of practice, and parents may need to provide children with more coaching and explicit instruction than they have had to in the past.

  • Feeling upset by the pandemic is a natural response for children to have.

  • Two key outcomes of the pandemic to watch for are children who become overly cautious and children who have missed important academic steps.

Children may be more generally fearful or anxious after all of the hand-washing and uncertainty. They may also have missed out on portions of their social or academic development. This can be an additional cause of worry for them, if they feel like they are out of sync with their peers.

Missing social development

Many children and parents struggled with online school. Also, children lacked the responsive support of teachers during the pandemic, when they could have used having additional caring adults around the most.

With all the adults in their lives facing burn out themselves, children can be increasingly left to fend for themselves socially, for their academics, and for entertainment. If you are a parent, there are probably at least some days when you are too tired to play with your child, instead opting to stare into your phone or television. This can give kids a sense of being left out, or leave them watching screens of their own at disproportionate rates.

Children want to connect with us, and with each other. So when they can't, they struggle both socially and emotionally.

According to the First Five Years Fund,

During the pandemic, infants and toddlers had limited social interaction and play-based learning, and many experienced high levels of stress. According to medical research, young children who have experienced pandemic-related chronic stress and trauma without the buffer of a nurturing supportive relationship can face an increased risk of developing emotional, behavioral, and cognitive problems. Further, recent academic research demonstrates that many young children have experienced delays in cognitive and motor skills, and programs have reported increases in behavioral issues.

As the mother of a young child myself, I saw my daughter grow up through her toddler years having to social distance. When she went to daycare, she would have to sit alone at a table, wearing a mask, instead of playing with other kids. Not being able to play takes away learning experiences.

All the mask wearing - while necessary - means that children didn't always learn to respond to other people's facial cues. Since 55% of communication is non-verbal, missing out on facial expression also hurt kids' communication skills.

Since kids didn't get to play with other kids, parents were doing double duty with school and work, and other family members couldn't come around, children had less opportunities for socialization. With mandatory social distancing, they also didn't have opportunities for chance hello's with acquaintances either. They didn't learn to smile at the check-out clerk, they didn't learn etiquette of going to restaurants, they missed out at seeing basic politeness and manners.

Instead, they watched people walking around fearful, sick and sometimes overtly hostile towards others. The tension during the pandemic was palapable, and it was harmful to kids and their mental health and social skills in ways that we haven't even seen yet.

Last week, my daughter's grandma picked her up from the bus. She came inside without a hug, a goodbye, or a thank you. When we asked her why she was so rude, she told us she didn't know she was being rude. Not spending time with other people took away time that our kids should have been learning about manners and proper social behavior.

Increased fearfulness

Everyone was afraid during the pandemic. Think of a little child. That time may have been more than half their lifetime. During that time, they were learning to be distrustful of others, and to stay far away.

No hand-holding, no hugs, no kisses from Grandma. Instead, when they would try to greet or speak to strangers, we would have to tell them to stay back because it wasn't safe to be so near to someone. Imagine the possible consequences that being raised this way could possibly have in the future.

Some children may have experienced trauma as a result of the pandemic. According to NYU Language Health,

“The COVID-19 pandemic certainly is an unusual, unexpected event that is causing many to worry and even panic,” Dr. Brown says. “Many children are seeing and hearing frightening news on television. Some have family members or other people they know who are sick or may have died. Our experience can vary greatly, based on not only different levels of exposure, but also on what is going on around the child.”

Depending on their circumstances, children may have experienced the trauma of a death in the family, parents losing a job or a home due to the pandemic, food insecurity due to lack of school food programming, and many other distressing events. These children may develop PTSD as a result, which is a life-long condition. PTSD leads to increased fearfulness as well.

Compassion Fatigue can Effect Children

When caregivers experience compassion fatigue because of the pandemic, it can make them less emotionally responsive to their children. In extreme cases, they may even become neglectful or abusive. In the aftermath of the pandemic, many of us may still feel like we have lost the ability to care about anything as much as we used to.

This could be even worse when parents were also working on the frontlines during the pandemic. In a recent study, Science Direct surveyed nurses who were also parents:

As hypothesized, direct care of COVID-19 patients, exposure to patient death and suffering due to COVID-19, and family income loss due to COVID-19 predicted greater compassion fatigue, which in turn, predicted greater parental burnout, child abuse, child neglect, spouse conflict, and substance abuse,

The more the adults around them had to cope with during the pandemic, the more children had to cope with as a result. When mommy or daddy is tired and snappish or zoned out all the time, kids don't understand that it isn't their fault. Kids tend to have a very egocentric view of the world: think kids who feel like their parent's divorce is their fault.

Problems like this were even worse during the pandemic, when so many adults were struggling emotionally. When adults struggle with their mental health, kids may take on some sense of responsibility. It can cause them to feel emotionally unstable too.

What to do

If you still feel burned out because of the pandemic, it is important to seek help. You can reach out to friends, family, a therapist or support group. You aren't alone with how you feel. Roughly half of the population felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

Make time for self-care and rest. In order to cope with burnout, it is important to take care of your own physical, emotional and spiritual health. It may feel like you don't have time, but you can do something as simple as spending 5 minutes a day meditating.

Reconnect to your kids. Again, this can be as simple as curling up together on the couch and watching a movie together. We all want to Netflix and chill, but you can do it together, with some popcorn. Letting your child pick the movie sometimes lets them know that you value what they like, too.

Spend time teaching social skills. Since children have missed out on social development, something like taking them to the park to play with other kids provides learning opportunities for them. Bonus if you have mom friends you can reconnect with at the same time!

By taking time to care for your emotional well-being, you give yourself more energy to care for your child's emotional well-being too. However, if you feel your child has experienced trauma, such as the loss of a loved one, you may need to consider a child psychologist for them as well.

If you feel concerned, try talking to your child's teacher about their social behavior at school, so you can get a feel for if they are on-track compared to other kids.

Most of all, be gentle with yourself, and with your child. This was a hard few years for everyone. It will take time for us all to feel better again. Making sure to give yourself grace and taking care of your mental health will go a long way towards healing, both for you and your child.


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