When children are young, it is their job to figure out how the social world around them works. When I cry, will someone come? When I smile, will someone smile back? If I fall, will someone pick me up? A world that has rules feels safe. Predictability affords a sense of security. As young children, we may not always get what we want, but the knowledge that we can go to sleep at night with a clear concept of what tomorrow will look like is essential. Without this knowledge, the world is a scary place.
Indeed, the latest wave of the pandemic has pulled that rug of predictability out from under our young children’s feet. My own family has been fortunate. No one in our home has had COVID (that we are aware of) and I can count the number of times we have been in quarantine on one hand. My wife and I both have jobs that allow us to work from home and we have not encountered economic hardship because of the pandemic. Finally, our own four-year-old is a fairly well-regulated child with an easy temperament.
But it’s been tough. After 12 straight days of quarantine (excluding a 4-hour window of “freedom” in the middle), small frustrations that would have been bumps in the road have led to full-blown tantrums. His ability to regulate himself after minor disappointments has dropped precipitously.
There is no shortage of data pointing to elevated rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidality in school-age children as a result of the pandemic. The stressors contributing to these scary trends are certainly affecting preschoolers as well. Research has shown disrupted sleep patterns, physical activity and psychosocial functioning in young children. Constructs such as anxiety and depression are harder to measure in young children, but their prevalence in this age group has doubtlessly risen as well. And how could it not? When these children lay their heads on their pillows, they have no right to assume that they know what tomorrow will bring. Will they go to school or be home? When at school, what constellation of teachers and friends will appear on a given day?
Here I offer no criticism of schools or policymakers. I do not envy their position.
I offer only a thought for parents: practice patience. There will be more tantrums. There will be more frustration. There will be more tears. Our children’s sense of knowing what awaits them will not be restored the day they return to school, or a week later. It will take time for them to trust routine again, to feel secure again, to feel safe again. For now, we can prioritize predictability at home. We can reassure our little ones that they are safe. And we can patiently dry their tears, assuring them that we will be there with them in the morning to greet what may come.