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The psychology of isolation: Tackling issues your child may be facing, by age group 

Kelsey Langbart, 12, of Lido Beach, practices music

Kelsey Langbart, 12, of Lido Beach, practices music virtually with her friend Sara Biancamano, 12, of Long Beach. Credit: Amy Langbart

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Now that Long Island is approaching a month into social distancing, psychologists are considering what effects isolation is having on children and families, and what the long-term impacts may be.

“We are all very wired to be social,” says Debra Reicher, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Stony Brook University. Children especially are dependent on their peers, therapists say.

Families may be experiencing the stress of being cooped up in shared spaces, especially if they live in apartments. Parents may be fighting with each other — or with their kids — as they get on each other’s nerves. Families may be dealing with financial stress. 

Some psychologists are also concerned about what it will be like when we try to reenter the world after so much time cocooned.

Yet for many families, psychologists say, this time may offer positives. “In a certain sense, kids have been on social overload,” Reicher says. They’ve been having playdates since the time they were still using a pacifier. This pause may allow families to strengthen their relationships, she says.

Different ages, different needs

Amy Langbart of Lido Beach, who has three daughters, has been experiencing how the different age groups seem to need varied types of parental support in adjusting to their upended lives.

Delaney, 20, is juggling online social work classes through Adelphi University, trying to meet the requirements for fieldwork when there’s no field to go to. Blake, 17, is in her senior year at Long Beach High School and is disappointed about potentially missing milestones such as graduation. And Kelsey, 12, is having the toughest time of the three, struggling to master school assignments from afar and practicing her viola over the internet with a friend from school.

At the same time, Langbart and her husband, Adam, who own Merrick Woods Country Day School, are navigating their own challenges of maintaining a business that is currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s like a house of cards,” Langbart says of the emotional reality of their new stopped-short lives. “It’s all great, and then 10 minutes later it all comes tumbling down. If I had an end date, then you could almost enjoy the time we have off. But everything is too uncertain.” 

Here are some Long Island psychologists’ thoughts about the effects of social isolation on families:

Pre-K: Internalizing house moods

The youngest children don’t have a strong sense of the passage of time, says Rona Novick, a psychologist from West Hempstead and author of the children’s book, “Mommy Can You Stop the Rain?” “What they’re thinking about is ‘Maybe tomorrow we can go play. This is boring. I don’t like this.’ ” 

She predicts preschool-aged children may have the easiest adjustment to being at home for an extended period. “I guarantee you we will not have to drag children to playgrounds. It will come back like riding a bike.”

Parents shouldn’t underestimate, however, what even the youngest children might be internalizing from the mood of the house, says Joaniko Kohchi, director of the Institute for Parenting at Adelphi University, which focuses on children from birth to age 6.

“Young children are supposed to think the world revolves around them. If a young child sees their parents fighting, they think it’s their fault,” Kohchi says. Explain to them that they haven’t done anything wrong. “Don’t try to pretend that something that happened right in front of them didn’t happen.”

Elementary: Struggles with schoolwork

Getting schoolwork done can be a source of frustration for elementary school students, especially when children don’t have the social comparison they get from being in the classroom, says Jennifer Keluskar, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Stony Brook University. For instance, if the teacher gives a very hard assignment, children don’t see that their peers are struggling as well. If mom or dad can’t download an assignment, they don’t see many other parents can’t do it either.

"These poor babies," says Katiuscia Gray, a social worker who practices in Valley Stream, and who, along with her business partner Amanda Fludd, has transitioned to counseling families virtually. "I've been talking to kids who have anxiety. Their routine has been shifted dramatically."

Many educators realize this. Long Beach Schools Superintendent Jennifer Gallagher sent this email home to offer perspective to district parents: “Twenty years from now, your children will not remember what they learned during the spring of 2020 … honestly, they won’t. They WILL remember the time they stayed home with you (or whoever is caring for them) for a few weeks. They will tell their own children about feeling safe, and loved, and peaceful during an anxious time."

Some therapists worry certain kids will become too comfortable with being at home. Especially children on the autism spectrum may find it a relief not to have to face the social anxiety of going to school, Reicher says.

Middle school: Staying social, virtually

Of Langbart’s three daughters, she’s most concerned about Kelsey, a sixth-grader. “Her whole life is going to school and hanging out with friends. Last night she asked me when I thought we would get back to normal. I said, ‘In May, it should get back to normal’ and she burst into tears. It’s heartbreaking.”

But Kelsey says she’s trying to stay upbeat. “We’ve already gone through a few weeks and it’s gone pretty quickly. That kind of calms me down,” she says.

Social issues can still exist, says Laurie Zelinger, a child psychologist in private practice in Cedarhurst. For instance, a child might not be invited to a group Zoom chat. If they misunderstand a text message, it may take a while until that gets repaired. “They’re not going to see that kid in school in a few minutes to see what their behavior is like,” Zelinger says.

Psychologists say they worry about the middle school and high school age group isolating in their rooms, sleeping until 3 p.m., losing motivation to do anything, and becoming depressed. Experts suggest encouraging kids to get up in the morning and establish a routine for the day.

Kids may also grow from this experience, Keluskar says. “There’s a lot of potential for some really nice things to happen in the long term,” she says. “Learning to adapt to changes and be more flexible, there is a lot of potential for kids to grow in that way.”

High school: A great sense of loss

“Teenagers are feeling an enormous sense of loss,” West Hempstead’s Novick says, especially seniors missing events such as prom or graduations. “They’re thinking, ‘It’s all gone. I can’t believe I didn’t get it. It’s not fair.’” Kids who are dating aren’t able to see their boyfriends or girlfriends.

Telling them that next year you can be in the school play is not at all helpful, Novick says. Instead, validate their feelings. Let them be sad before trying to problem solve with them, Novick says.

Older kids may have more fortitude to rise to the occasion, Stony Brook’s Reicher says.

That’s what Rowan Simpson, 15, a high school sophomore from Huntington, is trying to do. “I’ve been working out a lot. I’ve been baking. I have something in the oven right now, oatmeal sandwich cookies. I have to restring a guitar. We’ve been going on family walks, too.”

Looking to the future

“I wouldn’t want parents to think, ‘This is scarring my child for life.’ I think that’s unnecessary and unrealistic,” Novick says.

But it may take time to reenter the world.

Langbart says she thinks it’s going to take a while for people to sit next to a stranger at the movies, eat dinner in a crowded restaurant with tables close together. “Even hugging people or shaking hands,” she says. “I think things that never fazed us at all, it’s going to take a long time to be unfazed by it again.”

SOME WAYS TO GET HELP

HOTLINE:

516-679-1111; Long Island Crisis Center 24/7. Counselors listen, validate feelings and give resources and referrals that meet your needs and/or can answer your specific questions.

WARMLINE:

516-515-1948; The new "warmline," run by the Institute of Parenting at Adelphi University, welcomes calls from parents, caregivers and educators of babies and young children (ages 0-6) who have nonemergency questions about child adjustment, development, activities and how to talk to young children about all the recent changes. Leave a message and you will receive a call back Monday or Thursday afternoons between noon and 5 p.m.

TELEHEALTH:

Individual therapists may be offering sessions virtually. North Shore Child and Family Guidance Center in Roslyn is offering sessions for children and adolescents to age 23; call 516-626-1971.

VIDEO MADE TO EXPLAIN VIRUS TO CHILDREN

Laurie Zelinger, a child psychologist from Cedarhurst, has made a 13-minute video called "Please Explain the Coronavirus to Me," explaining the virus to young children.

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