“For most kids, this is a healthy and normal way for them to deal with scary things that are going on in their world,” she said. “This is the new monster.”
While the pandemic experience is new to most of us, this is hardly the first time in history that children have felt stress related to a new type of illness. Children would play “AIDS tag” at the height of that pandemic, said Dr. David J. Schonfeld, M.D., a developmental behavioral pediatrician and the founder of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement. Kids are adaptable, and for young children, this new reality might just seem like reality.
“There have now been several months of this, so it may become the way they think people interact — that you put on masks, that you go on Zoom,” he said.
For younger children especially, Dr. Schonfeld said, these changes are just another set of new things in their lives, such as adjusting to a new schedule or a uniform when they enter kindergarten. “These changes cause some stress, but most children master the change and this in turn promotes growth and adaptability,” he said.
Psychologists have also studied other, earlier examples of communitywide stress. “For example, during periods of war, children may be enacting battle or fight scenes,” said Malinda Colwell, Ph.D., professor of human development and family studies at Texas Tech University. “It is common for children’s play to reflect what they are experiencing in the world around them and what they see in the media and hear from conversations among adults.”
Play can also help a child regain a sense of control. “If a child is creating barriers for her stuffed animals with boxes and asking them to stay inside, she may be reflecting her understanding of the quarantine,” Dr. Colwell said. “In being the one giving the commands and creating the conditions of lockdown, the child is in a sense taking control of the situation and is in a position of authority in the play scenario.”
All of that said, parents should remain alert for signs of extraordinary distress — in particular, repetitive pretend play without resolution. “The main characteristic is not whether it makes it into their play, but how the child seems to deal with it in the play,” Dr. Schonfeld said. “If they resolve the conflict, that’s the therapeutic aspect of play.”