How to Parent an Only Child Through a Pandemic
Are you your toddler’s only playmate right now? Experts say that’s ok
By Katie Grant
Just two weeks into social distancing for COVID-19, my 3-year-old daughter’s favorite lovey became her new best friend — complete with his own deep voice and her ability to blame things on him.
It made me sad.
Not because she’d created an imaginary friend (which is completely normal around this age and a sign of creativity), but because she is an only child. And she can’t be around any other children for who-knows-how-long.
She’s been in preschool since she was 18 months old, and she was enjoying playdates with her three best friends. She was learning how to share and take turns and process conflict and emotions.
And then, the day before her 3rd birthday party (that we had to cancel), it all stopped. We started staying safer at home.
I worried that she might never know a world without masks, seeing other people only from six feet apart. I wished for a backyard in case she’d never swing on playground swings again.
I was mourning the loss of the normal childhood she might never have.
I feared she might never get back to being sufficiently socialized and become a spoiled child who only ever wanted to be around adults.
And, yes, these seem like first world problems compared to those who are homeless or hungry, sick or treating the sick. I’m extremely grateful for all that we have.
And that’s exactly why our family is so adamant about staying at home — to keep everyone else safe. But that safety comes at the cost of keeping my only child from the peer interactions she desperately needs at this young age.
So I called upon some experts to find out if I had reason to worry and what I could do about it.
Dr. Susan Newman — author of The Case for the Only Child, Parenting an Only Child, and Under One Roof Again and mother of an only child
Michele Garber — Licensed Special Education Teacher with multiple degrees in Psychology, Arts in Education (Drama), and mother of an only child
Here’s what I learned:
1. Little Ones Don’t Really Know the Difference
Dr. Newman, a social psychologist, parenting expert and best-selling author, assured me that
“younger children, particularly only children, spend most of their time with their parents anyway. Therefore, this time, to parents it seems extraordinary. Different, difficult. But to very young children, I’m not sure it makes all that much difference.”
She says toddlers are not so attuned to social schedules as teenagers are and, because of their immense curiosity about so many things, they can move on to this new normal more easily.
“They are absorbing and learning so much that a change in their routine isn’t that difficult for them to handle.”
Phew! This social isolation really isn’t that bad for only toddlers.
But my daughter is also very verbal and aware of why life is different right now. She says it’s because of “the sick people” and she really misses her friends.
In that case, Dr. Newman says…
2. Let Them Know It’s Not Forever AND Give Them Something to Look Forward to
“Make it clear to her this isn’t forever. ‘We, mom and dad, we don’t know exactly when the germs are going to go away but, as soon as they do, you’re going to go see your teachers and your friends at school.’”
Dr. Newman highlighted giving little ones something to look forward to.
“For example, tell them something like, ‘So, after dinner, we’re going to go for a walk’ or ‘Tomorrow we’re going to work in the garden.’ This gives kids something to plan on in their minds and it’s just encouraging. It’s a positive in the middle of all these negatives that we’re dealing with.”
I had already been doing that naturally, trying to normalize my child’s life right now. But what can we give them to look forward to?
3. Virtual Visits ARE Enough
As someone who frowns on lots of screen time unless you’re home sick, it’s really raining outside or, you know, a worldwide pandemic, this one worried me.
It turns out all the experts I spoke to say having virtual playdates on Facetime or Zoom are not only sufficient but essential right now. Janine Halloran, Licensed Mental Health Counselor and play expert, offers,
“Digital play is actually a type of play. And, truthfully, we all do it. That shouldn’t be the only type of play we’re doing. But I also don’t want parents to feel guilty if their kids are doing a lot of screen time because that’s the reality of what’s going on right now.”
I was assured by Halloran and Dr. Newman that just seeing their friends’ and families’ faces on a screen is a reminder to little ones of the wider world and that they have a support system out there that loves them.
“That’s really what it has to be,” Halloran adds.
And she also wants parents to give themselves grace right now about all of this. Especially single parents or families where both parents are still working, who don’t have much, if any, time to sit down with their kids and play or make art.
Great, then, are we off the hook for screens in general? Apparently, also yes.
4. Screen Time is FINE
Halloran even pointed out,
“The kids who are growing up in this screen generation need to be able to communicate in two different ways. Essentially, they’re learning two different languages. You learn how to communicate online and then, you learn how to communicate in person; it’s two different skill sets.”
My daughter is actually sending video messages (with my help) through the Marco Polo app that lets you talk when you have time. So she’s staying connected with her friends and learning online skills that will only help her later in life.
Another sigh of relief.
As for TV shows, quality children’s programming like you find on PBS is great for keeping an only child’s social skills up and processing emotions.
Our favorites were also endorsed by Halloran and include Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, Wishenpoof! and Ni Hao, Kai-Lan.
So when you need a break or time to make dinner, you can feel good about turning on the tube. You’ll both benefit from that screen time.
Screen time without guilt? Check! So… how to substitute peer-to-peer socializing?
5. Let Teachable Moments Take Over
Without the option of squabbling over toys at school or at a playdate, both Halloran and Dr. Newman offered ways to continue lessons about sharing or taking turns. Dr. Newman suggests a dinner table instance,
“When you have one scoop of mashed potatoes left, you can say, ‘Oh, I know you really want this, but daddy wants it too. Why don’t we cut it in half?’ And you could do that with any number of things.”
“You can use those teachable moments. You can have her share with her dolls or her stuffies. Or you can prompt it with, ‘We have this one cookie, but there are three friends. What do we do?’”
Halloran also stresses that socializing with any age is still socializing — whether it’s in person or not.
We’ve got no choice right now, but I was glad for the reassurance.
Beware, however, of letting that equal playing field get out of hand. Dr. Newman notes,
“Always giving in is really doing your child a disservice. Should they start to think everything’s coming their way, they are going to have a rude awakening when they get out. They’re not going to have the ball thrown to them all the time and they’re not going to get every single thing they think they’re entitled to. Even in this quarantine period with an only child, it’s an opportunity. Your child may want you to play a game when you’re working. But you have to tell her she can’t come into your office when you’re working. She needs to learn she doesn’t run the show, and that there are three people in the family. One of them is a child.”
Michele Garber, Licensed Special Education Teacher, says play with loveys or imaginary friends is also a chance for socializing.
“Imaginary play gives little ones a forum, a place to role play and imitate things that are on their minds. There’s an opportunity for treating that lovey like a friend. The lovey might tell the parent, ‘I’m sad.’ And the parent can engage in that conversation. ‘Why are you sad, lovey? What happened between the two of you?’ And let them tell you. Listen and then you can reply, ‘Wow, I understand. I wonder what you could do next time.’”
Garber says these interactions serve an important function.
“They’re talking through these scenarios because they are socializing. They’re playing out things they ran into that are incomplete and they want a way to complete it. That is really gently doing what they need to do. Also, it’s a practice of language and communication and interaction. There’s no worry about a little one doing this.”
Perhaps we can fill their friends’ shoes to some extent right now.
How else can we help little ones stuck in a house with adults to adjust and continue learning social skills?
6. Create Scenarios
Garber says modeling and imitation is how we can best help little ones adjust.
“There’s a certain modeling of social interaction that’s available at school. And you can steer those interactions toward practicing taking turns or sharing, for example. You can model sharing for them and ask them how they do it at school. You feed it back into their memory of school. So you’re still there at school without them being there; they’re still getting that connection. And you could say, ‘Show me what you do when you share at school? What happens?’ Have them show it with a teddy and let them model that themselves. That will reinforce these lessons also.”
Another way of looking at modeling and imitation is to create social stories, as Halloran cites.
“Carol Gray was the founder and creator of this idea. Basically, it’s a little book or story that you make for kids and it talks them through different scenarios. Like, ‘The reason why we’re going back to school is because people are better now and we have a vaccine or we have this, we have that. When we do go back to school, we will still need to wash our hands. We will need to make sure that we’re paying attention to covering our cough. And, if we are sick, we’ll stay home but we’ll still go back to school.’”
This also works for what you notice during your child’s imaginary play, Garber adds.
“If you notice your child talking and she’s trying to work something out with her toys, I wouldn’t chime in right then, while she’s focusing on what she’s creating. But make a mental note and tell a story later to help her process those feelings. If you noticed a conflict, you can ask, ‘Could we do it another way? Let’s try this. Let’s try something new.’”
It’s nice to know that creating circumstances can help little only ones to continue growing.
But we can’t be right by their side all the time. Nor should we.
7. Alone Time Is Beneficial — for EVERYONE
Letting your little only one play alone is very helpful for them — and it can give you a break. Dr. Newman tells us,
“If your little one is doing more imaginative play with their toys or imaginary friends, they are using their alone time very well. That is them coping, which is going to help them a lot as they get older because alone time is really beneficial for kids.”
So don’t feel like you have to fill all of their time when you’re at home together.
“Don’t steer your kids too much. It’s like you pop in and you pop out while they’re playing on their own. You don’t need to give them very structured activities. Offer them random stuff: string, cardboard boxes and crayons. And they can just create. The better activities are where it’s open and they are about movement. These little ones are about movement, movement, imitation, imitation.”
When I asked Dr. Newman if she could foresee any developmental or psychological issues that might arise after the long period of isolation for younger only children she said,
“Actually I do. And it relates to parents. The answer is no unless parents are so anxious right now and have difficulty relating to their child. If they can’t play and they can’t be involved and they’re not having fun because they are so consumed by anxiety and worry and even stress, children can pick up on those feelings. Then there could be problems. You could be adding nervousness to your kids that they might not otherwise have. Developmentally, I don’t see any long-term problems except for that caveat.”
Halloran offers a solution to combating that new level of stress and anxiety,
“I want to make sure that you are taking care of yourself. If you have the advantage of having two parents at home, then one of you could hang out with your child, especially if he/she is still pretty little. The other one could go out or upstairs or do something else in a different place, so that you are both still feeling like you have energy and are able to actually do your jobs and parent because this is crazy cakes big time.”
If you are a single parent, take whatever moments you can while your child is napping to breathe. And seek professional help if you feel you need it.
“I have to stress that adult self-care is really important. And I see some people are working their butts off. So I’m not trying to say you’re going to have a ton of time. You know, some people are in the midst of being in hospitals and being first responders. But, in any way, small ways, if people can stop and breathe while they’re in the car going somewhere and/or reset themselves by singing a song, listening to music, whatever. It’s really important right now that we pay attention.”
Point taken. Grab those moments alone when and wherever you can — even if you have to hide in the closet.
And, when you are together, try to have some fun!
8. Play with Them!
According to Halloran, there are sixteen different kinds of play, and any type of play right now is good for you and your child. She suggests doing whatever floats your boat, and your kids will pick up on your enthusiasm.
“Do things that you loved as a kid. If you loved monopoly as a child, do it. If you loved building with cardboard, do it. Introduce your own ways of playing and know that play is a natural stress reliever. It’s good for kids to do it, and it’s good for adults to do it. And make sure that people are having that downtime because this is very stressful. It’s very stressful on a good day.”
I was also wondering if it’s possible to spend too much time with our only children during this period. Can they be paid too much attention?
“It’s really hard to spoil a child with love, affection and time,” notes Dr. Newman. “What ruins them is possessions and too much stuff. What you’re trying to do in this period is create a sense of security for your child. With very young children that’s created by spending time with them, doing fun things with them, laughing and not being a strict disciplinarian.”
So have fun and play during your time together.
But doesn’t that combat any chance our little only children might have for independence? Actually, there are ways around that.
Dr. Newman says,
“Give your child assignments, so to speak. Say, ‘Can you carry your laundry to your room? And put it away?’ Even if she puts it in the wrong place, it doesn’t matter. Ask them little favors like, ‘Go get daddy’s book he was reading, it’s next to the bed.’ Or say, ‘I have to go to work now. Can you play by yourself for the next 20 minutes?’ I think very young children’s attention span is not so great, so you have to work with and around that. But give them some specific time that is her independent time and let her choose what she wants to do with that time.”
9. And Connect
Some might say this time is one of forced connection but let it be that anyway. Connect, reconnect and let yourselves enjoy this time together as much as you can.
Your little only child is most likely thinking how great it is that they get to be around their parents all the time. Forced or not, bonding will occur and get reinforced. They will be fine as long as you stick to your routine, work in some teachable moments and play.
You are helping them create a sense of security now that they can take with them back into the world when it opens.
And when you do return to the world, help them ease back into society. Be aware that some children might have social anxiety about returning.
You can also trust their teachers will whip them back into shape if they do pick up any bad habits while holed up with you.
“Remember, this is the ultimate shared experience,” Halloran points out. “Your child and their friends will have all gone through this and will be able to commiserate with each other when they reunite.”
10. The Takeaway
Little ones are fine right now. They need you to help them find things to look forward to. Use your screen devices for connecting with family and for play — it’s OK. Find ways to play make believe to keep up their social skills and manners. Let them play alone — it builds character and gives you a break. And then play with them and truly connect in new ways or old ways. It’s all good.
Finally, Dr. Newman offers this,
“Children, especially these very young children, are resilient. And they’re going to follow your lead.”
Let’s lead them the best we can. Given the circumstances.
Let’s stay together. You can keep up with me and my writings here.
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