Like a panicked social director, Teryn Thomas of Moorestown was trying everything to cushion her three children, ages 1, 5, and 17, from the disruption and disappointment of quarantine: games, suggested FaceTime sessions with friends, letter writing, rock painting.
Then, on a short car ride, 5-year-old Robyn started chattering from the backseat as she played with toy horses. “Announcement!” she said. “COVID is here. None of you can go outside. All horses are locked in their cages forever.”
Thomas, 32, was stunned. “Here I thought I’d been doing a good job of keeping it positive,” she said. “The rest of the car ride was silent. It’s sad, right?”
As America endures an unprecedented realignment of daily life, young people absorb their parents’ tensions, but also contend with pressures of their own: lost contact with friends, possibly canceled graduations and sports games, grown-ups’ ubiquity and unwanted attentions, the fear that their futures may be compromised.
Assessing the social impact of the coronavirus on children, psychologists speculate that most kids will fall between the extremes of derailing or flourishing.
If a child is marooned in a dysfunctional, chaotic home, for example, “it could upend his or her ability to seek healthy relationships in the future," said Georgia DeGangi, a retired child psychologist in Shelburne, Vt.
“When this is over,” said Barbara Becker Holstein, a child psychologist in Monmouth County, N.J., “you’re going to see two ends of the spectrum. One: kids with amazing resiliency and strength who’ll hardly talk about COVID-19 a year from now. The other: children with post-traumatic stress disorder and a lot of anxiety who will not be feeling sure about themselves. They may just need time, or meds and therapy. We’ll have to see.”
Thomas’ 5-year-old isn’t the only problem.
Her son, Julian Wiggins, 17, a senior at Moorestown High School, faces a spring of potentially endless disappointment. “The prom will most likely be called off,” he said. "The senior trip to Disney World, too. And probably graduation.
“Everybody tells you that senior year comes with events you’ll never forget. But I’ll never get to experience them.”
For Thomas, the director of teaching and learning for a group of charter schools in the region, watching her son cross out rite-of-passage occasions on his calendar is devastating.
“We talked about renting after-prom hotels in Atlantic City a year ago," she said. "A mom made a deposit on the limo, and we put down $2,000 for the Florida trip.
“Helping your child figure out his emotions during something like this leaves you grief-stricken. This may sound self-indulgent, but it’s hard not to give your child a graduation party. These moments were supposed to mean something.”
From Julian’s perspective, he’s losing more than a cap and gown. “I miss the friendships in school,” he said. "Even small things like a handshake in the morning are not possible. FaceTime isn’t enough. Physical jokes aren’t the same on the phone.
“Doctors talk about a second wave of the virus coming next winter. My hope is dimming. The lightbulb isn’t shining as bright as it used to.”
Anxiety and disappointment
While school districts send students academic lessons via cyberspace or paper packet, they are providing just part of the school experience children need.
Especially between ages 6 and 12, quarantined students are missing out on learning how to play with each other in games and sports, make and keep friends, and deal with bullying, Holstein said.
“These critical situations are being interrupted,” she said. Moreover, kids of that age can lose the sense that they are part of a crowd beyond dad and mom. “It can lead to anxiety and a number of hurts.”
Between the ages of 10 and 18, students ache for the trappings of school. The buildings themselves feel like home base, and are symbolic of a formality and structure students lost by being socially distant, Holstein said.
School is the setting for important activities and vital milestones, she added: "Sports team, first crush, the chance to laugh hysterically with your best friend, or win an essay contest, carry a giant drum onto the field. It’s the place where children develop their sense of identity, their power for the future.
“Virtual learning is not the same. It’s flat and it’s lonely.”
Life moves slowly
Two Havertown parents who are friends have been closely monitoring the social impact of quarantine on their children. The results are mixed.
“My kids are fairly OK, truthfully,” said Annie Duggan, 45, a project manager at a property management company. Still, said Alex, 13, in the eighth grade at Friends’ Central School in Wynnewood, “It’s been tough not to go somewhere and do something.”
His brother, Jamie, 10, a fourth-grader at Friends School Haverford, said he’s having a bit of a problem. “It was better to go to school,” he said. “School wasted time, but being home doesn’t waste enough time. Everything goes more slowly.”
Duggan’s pal, Tina Shelton, 56, who works in a psychiatric residential rehabilitation facility, is hoping two April birthdays in the family will be the last celebrated in isolation.
Her son, Christopher, 15, a freshman at Haverford High School, wishes he could return to making robots in school and playing trombone in the band. “Band is like family,” he said, “and you lose a little bit when that goes away.” He also wants to be with his girlfriend. FaceTime chitchat is fine, but “it’s annoying when you can’t hang out.”
Meantime, Elizabeth Shelton, 21, finds it extremely difficult to be back in the house after living at Boston University. “My friends live in different states,” the junior biology major said. “It’s impossible to see them.”
Among the toughest people with whom to be socially isolated, teenagers can present formidable problems to parents these days, experts say. Stuck at home, many are outraged, said Lise Van Susteren, a Washington, D.C., child psychologist.
“At an age when they believe rules don’t apply, when the very essence of their being tells them to break away and be independent,” she said, “teenagers are now enduring an intolerable infringement on their freedom and personal liberty.
"Gale-force winds are blowing against them, and they’re starting to get the sense their futures might be co-opted.”
Happily, life isn’t so dire for Liam Cunningham, 16, of Narberth, a junior at Harriton High School in Lower Merion.
“Being at home suits me,” he said. “I’m very introverted. Now, the pressure is off to have to make social plans. Going back to school will be a hard transition.”
His mother, Amanda Cunningham, 43, the COO of Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, said being forced to stay at home is “a dream come true” for her son. And it’s helped him reconnect with his sister, Maddy, 20, an English major and junior at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y.
She had gone to boarding school for three years before college. “Liam and I never got a chance to be friends like this,” she said. While being without classmates can be excruciating, learning to play the video game Minecraft with her brother is helping the siblings bond. “We’ve jumped into the same world,” she said.
As parents and young people cope with the unknown, they long for normalcy. Thomas of Moorestown has been trying to conjure a plan B if her son’s graduation is scotched.
“I bought lawn signs: ‘Class of 2020,' ‘Great job,’ ” Thomas said. "But the honest answer is there’s nothing compared to walking across a stage, getting a diploma. We can’t figure out how to re-create that in the COVID world.
“How do I give this child any semblance of hope when there’s no end in sight?”