If you believe the negative stereotypes, only children are innately insular and maladjusted. If you believe the science, practically no developmental differences exist between only children and kids used to squalling with siblings. But when it comes to how only children are weathering social isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s hard to know what to believe.
Are self-sufficient only children unusually capable of hunkering down with their own company for months or, with playdates cancelled and school on hiatus, is one really the loneliest number, after all?
The answer (as you perhaps anticipated) hinges on the unique personality of every individual child. According to the writer Megan Lane, so far, isolation has been a non-issue for her nine-year-old daughter Simone. “From the outside looking in, she is the same happy child she was prior to lockdown,” says Lane. “She has yet to mention loneliness.”
Oliver, a 12-year-old only child living in Brooklyn, has also been even-keeled throughout quarantine. Sure, he found seeing all his friends cancelling their birthday parties kind of sad, but on the other hand, he’s been using his extra time to take up photography. “It’s a little bit hard [being an only child during lockdown] because I only have myself to hang out with,” he admits, before sensibly adding: “But it’s probably a good thing because we’re living in a New York City apartment, and if we had one more person, it would probably be too tight.”
According to the child clinical psychologist Dr Henri-Lee Stalk, parents of only children need not worry too much about the long-term effects of childhood social isolation at this point. “We’re expecting that a lot of kids who are coming out of this [lockdown] will continue to be resilient and adaptive,” says Stalk. That’s especially true if parents are “modeling calmness and providing solid consistency and structure throughout their kids’ days” by communicating well with their child and striving to provide sufficient activities.
Of course, it can be tricky being your child’s sole friend and playmate – especially when you’re a parent juggling work, household responsibilities and your own anxieties.
“The biggest challenge for us as parents with an only kid is the entertainment factor,” says Sara Gillooly, a realtor and mom of five-year-old Alina. “Normally she would have kids at daycare to play with, or you’re able to socialize with your friends who have kids, and now she doesn’t have any of that. So you feel bad. You’re like, OK, well, I’ll play Barbies or Legos or whatever it is. You know, after three hours of play, you’re kind of done, right? We were thinking of getting a dog to have a break, which is crazy, because a dog’s not a break.”
Older only children, like Simone and Oliver, can be quite capable of keeping themselves busy. “I’ve seen Simone happily turn a cardboard box into an owl costume – a two-hour project that she completed on her own, while I took care of household chores,” says Megan. But that’s not to say older kids are necessarily having an easier time with all this – in fact, Stalk says, kids in their preteens and up are “potentially the age group that would have the hardest time being away from their friends, because friends play such a big role in their life at that age, as they’re understanding their identities as individuals apart from their families”.
Because maintaining friendships is important for older children, Stalk encourages parents to support whatever methods of socialization their kids gravitate towards. For Oliver, that’s looked like playing a lot more Call of Duty. “That isn’t, you know, my favorite activity,” says Melissa, Oliver’s mom. “But it’s kind of amazing that he has never had any interest in video games before and just realized all of his friends were there playing together. So he’s like, OK, I’m going to play some video games.”
Although kids are generally resilient, Stalk notes that mental health and behavioral issues can be exacerbated by the stress, strangeness and stagnation of the pandemic. “If you have a child with a tendency to be more socially anxious around their peers, we would expect that their anxiety would potentially worsen with less peer exposure,” says Stalk. “The same goes for a child who is more prone to low mood or at risk of depression.”
Some children may develop new behaviors while sheltering in place – for example, Sara noticed Alina, regularly a very happy kid, has become a bit anxious. “You can’t leave the room now without her panicking when before, she really wouldn’t care,” she says. According to Stalk, it’s perfectly normal for children with no history of behavioral issues to express unprecedented anxiety, anger or sadness in response to the stresses of lockdown. Fortunately, Stalk believes kids will probably recover from such feelings within a few months of resuming their regular social patterns.
“I think as we start to move towards six months [of quarantine], we might be looking at more difficulties,” says Stalk. “Social development for kids is a lot like scaffolding. You have to build it up. And if there are gaps, that can be a little hard [to recover from]. If we are facing longstanding cultural changes and we’re not really able to create as much social interaction as we like, that could potentially cause some difficulty for kids as they develop. Their development might look less focused on individual interaction and potentially might move towards more comfort with virtual interaction,” she says.
Whether they have siblings or not, kids today are coping with stress, strangeness and isolation during a formative time. One day, they will tell us exactly what kind of an impact the pandemic had on their lives.