This Is Your Toddler’s Brain While Social Distancing, According to a Psychologist
By Rachel Bowie
May. 15, 2020
When the realities of social distancing went into play, I breathed one selfish sigh of relief. The silver lining is that my son is just two years old. Odds are he won’t remember any of this, I remember thinking to myself.
But, less than a month later, we were Zooming in for one of his friend’s second birthday parties. My typically happy son—who’d been cut off from his toddler peers since mid-March—was downright giddy upon seeing his pals. He was slapping the table with open palms, clapping and whooping. Suddenly, my initial relief turned into a micro panic attack. Socially and emotionally-speaking, would he really be unaffected by all this?
I decided to check in with Madeline Levine, Ph.D., author of Ready or Not: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain and Rapidly Changing World, to get her take on the impact of social distancing on the preschool set. Here’s what she had to say.
1. For Toddlers, The Biggest Impact Comes from a Change in Routine
Levine is clear: Of course, toddlers notice when people who have been a regular presence in their life go missing. “One of the most valuable things in a toddler’s life is predictability, so if their friends, nannies or even grandma and grandpa suddenly are absent, your toddler is likely to be upset or confused,” she says.
That said, they’re still at an age where they probably won’t remember all this a few years from now. “We know that kids develop a kind of amnesia at around age seven that fades early memories,” Levine adds. “That’s not to say that the lack of familiar faces and predictable routines won’t distress your young child.”
So, what are the best ways to counter the impact? “In addition to predictability, kids need to feel seen, stable and soothed,” she says. “Do your best to maintain routine and structure with plenty of time for play and reassurance. Most importantly, try to prioritize your own ability to remain available and calm, which is obviously a huge challenge at the moment.”
2. Remember That They LOVE Having You Around 24/7
Juggling work and childcare is, um, insanity-inducing. But little kids notice something different: Whoa, mom and dad are suddenly around all the time. Yes, that’s a routine change, but it could turn out to be a positive one, especially as it relates to attachment and parental bond-building.
In other words, what you see as claustrophobic and socially strained, they see as comforting and normal. And, no, it won’t impede their ability to form other relationships later in life.
That said, if you are experiencing unusual amounts of stress, downplay it: “Try to keep your expressions relaxed—again, a tall order in times like these—and prioritize how happy you are to see your little one,” says Dr. Levine.
3. Maintain Connections to Other People
“Make sure you and your kids keep connected to other important people in your lives,” Dr. Levine says. That might be a grandparent. That might be a best friend. “Most days there should be a check-in with that person, whether it’s just to share thoughts or solve problems or provide support.”
But what if your child has no interest in the FaceTime call with Grandma? Know that the act of checking in with Grandma is significant in and of itself. “At this age, some kids love Zoom calls while others are disinterested, and others are upset by them. Gauge your child’s reaction to these calls and proceed accordingly.”
Bottom line: Be gentle with yourselves and those around you.