Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, my toddler had a pretty bustling social life. He went to an in-home daycare center that he generally loved. They had daily dance parties. They celebrated each other’s birthdays. The other kids hugged my son when we dropped him off in the morning and on more than one occasion, erupted into cheers. It was a very cute place.
Still, when that daycare abruptly closed last March, my toddler, then almost 2, was happy. He was home with his parents and big brother every day. While the rest of us were struggling to adjust to the new rhythms of lockdown, he relished the extra family time.
But now, he’s been home with us all day, every day for a year — more than a third of his life — and I’m beginning to worry a bit about the impact this long stretch of relative isolation has had on him. It’s not as though his days have been filled with playdates and enriching outings. On the homefront, he’s often (sorry, kid!) pretty ignored while his dad and I try and cram in work. He’s become really shy around strangers. His sleep is … bad.
Are these pandemic related? Or just toddler-ness?
HuffPost Parents spoke to several experts about the impact the pandemic is having on the youngest kiddos ― particularly given that it’s not at all clear when we will get back to any level of normalcy.
Overall, experts are NOT really worried about toddlers.
Ample evidence has emerged that the pandemic has harmed the mental health and emotional development of many, many children, from surveys showing that 60% of teenagers say they’re lonely to deeply troubling federal data that revealed a 24% jump in mental health-related emergency room visits among 5- to 11-year-olds.
“I am worried about children’s development being affected by the pandemic,” said Aubrey Hargis, a parenting coach and author of “Toddler Discipline for Every Age and Stage: Effective Strategies to Tame Tantrums, Overcome Challenges, and Help Your Child Grow.” “But it’s not toddlers I am concerned about.”
That’s because at the end of the day, what toddlers need is to be in a comfortable, safe environment with a nurturing caregiver, Hargis said. If those needs are being met — and that’s a big “if” because for many families, that has been a profound challenge during the pandemic — then toddlers really should do just fine, she said.
Lockdowns and social distance, after all, have not limited younger kiddos’ worlds in a big way.
“All of the things that toddlers need in order to develop are likely to still be in place: toys or other objects to play with, some furniture to climb on, socks to learn how to put on, messy spaghetti sauce to engage their senses, and an adult or sibling to talk to them to develop receptive and expressive language skills,” Hargis said.
For toddlers, ‘socialization’ doesn’t necessarily work the way many parents think.
One major reason why toddler experts aren’t really worried about how 1, 2 and 3-year-olds could be harmed by the pandemic? Toddlers do a lot of their developing through play, but play at this stage doesn’t require a lot of pals.
“At this age, toddlers generally engage in ‘parallel play’ rather than ‘cooperative play,’” Hargis explained. “Two toddlers on a play date may have a lot of fun, but they are playing with toys side-by-side rather than making decisions on how to work together to solve problems. Parallel play is something parents do with their toddlers pretty instinctively anyway. There’s no need to worry about a lack of peer interaction at this age.”
That is one reason why studies generally don’t bear out the idea that preschool programs have the kind of profound social, emotional and educational benefits experts once believed they might have. Safe, dependable group care for kids is an essential service because it allows parents to work and because it can be a critical way to connect young children with health services, meals, etc. But from a purely developmental perspective, it is not necessary for young kids.
So while taking care of young children during a year of lockdown has been exhausting, parents really should take heart that they’re really giving their toddlers everything they need.
“I think parents underestimate how much they can do with their kids in their home,” said Becky Kennedy, a New York City-based clinical psychologist.
But parents: Check in on your own stress levels.
Decades of research have shown that parental stress and depression can hamper children’s emotional and behavioral development. So while experts generally aren’t concerned that toddlers are missing major developmental milestones during the pandemic, they are concerned that parents could unintentionally transfer fears and anxieties to their toddlers. As Kennedy put it: Young children really do “notice and perceive everyone’s feelings, and everyone’s stress.”
But that does not mean parents should hide all of their struggles and emotions from their young children. If anything, they should be more open.
Without that, Kennedy said, without “talking to our kids about the changes they notice, about the stress in their home, about the changes in schedule, about why we wear masks, about why we can’t see certain people … then our kids store all the stress in this kind of ‘corona’ year without having a story from parents to explain it.”
And that combination of noticing changes and stress around them without a trusted adult explaining (in an age-appropriate way) what is happening could lead to self-blame and self-doubt, Kennedy warned. Toddlers may think they’ve somehow caused these changes themselves, or might believe that they’ve somehow misjudged everyone’s emotional state.
So it’s important for toddler parents — who are under significant stress these days — to take a look at their own emotional state, and get help if they need it. That’s no easy task for families already juggling so much, but it is crucial.
It’s also important that in having open, validating conversations with children about COVID-19 and the practical changes it has introduced to their lives that parents be calm and reassuring and ask them what they know. And if they don’t much want to talk about it or don’t really seem to care, don’t push it!
Think of your toddlers’ behavior as is a “window” into their internal life, Kennedy said. So if you’re concerned the past year really has been detrimental to them emotionally, tune into changes in such matters as like sleep, tantrums, and sibling rivalry.
“The biggest thing we look at is how does a kid function?” Kennedy said. “And what is a toddler supposed to be doing? Can the kid still play? Can the kid still have some joy? If parents are really struggling, or they think their kid is really struggling, I would remind them that there are a lot of opportunities to get help.”