Read: How the coronavirus is influencing children’s play
Children of all ages, of course, can have bigger problems than being at loose ends and missing their friends. That all-important sense of security might be harder to achieve for families who were thrown into severe economic straits by the shutdown and have had to worry about basic needs such as food, shelter, and medical care. For such families, Jones said, the best way to support the kids is to make sure that support is available for the parents in the form of food banks, unemployment benefits, public clinics, and the like.
In some kids, the loneliness brought on by social isolation might turn into depression or other mental-health issues. The time to worry, says Elizabeth Schwarz, a child psychiatrist in New York City, is when kids display extremes in behavior, such as sleeping all the time or not at all, increased irritability, and changes in weight. One mother in Walnut Creek, California, who asked that I not use her name to protect her family’s privacy, was shocked when, the week after shelter-in-place orders went into effect in California, her 15-year-old daughter handed her a letter revealing that she was bulimic. For the teenager, the pandemic brought with it a confluence of stressful events—a disappointment in a school election, fear of losing her 104-year-old great-grandmother, a breakup with her boyfriend. Normally, her mother told me, she’d be able to channel the stress through activities and socializing. But because of the pandemic, “she had things right and left [fall] off of her calendar.” Fortunately, the family has been able to get good medical and counseling support for their daughter. And in a strange twist, the pandemic has enforced space and time for recovery.
Even for parents whose kids seem to be handling things well, the transition to summer brings more uncertainty. Different families, counties, and states are living with very different rules, as well as different levels of willingness to abide by those rules. “Can we just be honest? I’m freaking out about what everyone will do,” Jones said of her own two children. The best that adults can do for children is provide some certainty within the uncertainty. Kids’ need for routine and a sense that the adults in their life can keep them safe applies to summer fun too. “Parents can say, ‘If things open up in two weeks, you’ll go to camp,’” Schwarz said. “‘If they don’t, we will get a slip-and-slide.’” Some public-health experts have also begun to suggest that two isolating families can come together, allowing children and adults to socialize with a slightly increased but still limited risk.
And everyone stuck at home—who is old enough—should continue to acknowledge that this enforced togetherness is unusual. The Acker boys, for example, have brought their college habits back to New Jersey, making mac and cheese and eggs for dinner at 1 a.m., which led their mother to set some new ground rules in the kitchen. During a tense family moment recently, the oldest son, Ian, 22, who had planned to stay in San Francisco after his college graduation in May, looked at his mother and said, “I’m not even supposed to be here.” She realized he was right. “I thought, That’s so true,” she told me. “Let’s just start with that.”