Social distancing with an only child: How parents can help

Last updated: 04-23-2020

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Social distancing with an only child: How parents can help

"Mom, can I just get together with one friend for a hike?" My 14-year-old only child asked this question with tapered enthusiasm. Because we are in the middle of a global coronavirus pandemic, my answer is always the same. No.

I launched into a conversation about social distancing and the importance of doing our part to stay home to flatten the curve. She shrugged her shoulders, retreated to her room and said, "Yeah, I get it, but whatever."

As a mother of one, I can't tell her to play with her brothers and sisters in the backyard. Her normal avenues for in-person social connections - school, tennis, sleepovers and impromptu hangouts with friends - are on hold for an undetermined amount of time.

I understand the gravity of practicing social distancing but worry an absence of peer-to-peer interaction will have implications for my daughter's long-term mental health.

"Only children are more like children with siblings than they are different," says Susan Newman, a social psychologist, parenting expert and author of numerous books, including "Parenting an Only Child." For now, there is no way of knowing the long-term impact of social distancing with an only child or children with siblings. The key is, according to Newman, how safe the child or children feel in their environment and how much of a steady diet of anxiety they are receiving from their parents.

This requires parents to keep a healthy perspective.

In particular, parents of only children should "stop worrying or feeling guilty that your child would be more content if there were a sibling," Newman says. (Instead, parents of only children can be grateful they are not setting disputes, soothing escalating tensions or monitoring pleas for parental attention.) Having an only during the pandemic does not mean you need to fill your child's time, to prevent him or her from feeling lonely. "This is a mistake," Newman says. Most only children are good at filling the extra time without constant parental input. If the child isn't the best at independence and needs you to be more involved, be mindful the "need for attention likely has more to do with your child's nature than his or her sibling-less status."

I spoke with Newman and other mental health experts about how parents of only children can downplay their anxiety and keep calm - and, perhaps, emerge with a fresh connection with their kids.

Model behavior you want your kid to replicate:

"Kids are watching you. They are mimicking parents' reactions," Newman says. Only children especially are "feeling what you are feeling. They are seeing your reaction a bit more because they are not fighting with a sibling and aren't distracted." How a parent copes is how an only child is going to cope. "Keep the gloom and doom in the household to a minimum," Newman says.

Along the way, remind them that you are also social distancing. Describe how you miss jogging and having dinner with your friends. Make them understand that it is not just them.

Take the pressure off your only. Parents might be well-intentioned, but now isn't the time to micromanage or hover. "Don't be so intense," Newman says. Stop worrying about academics and online schoolwork, and give your child some space.

Use the lockdown to your advantage:

"Parents of only children tend to do too much of what an only child could and should be doing," Newman says. Use social distancing as a way to give your only child more responsibility. Put him or her in charge of laundry, making dinner or vacuuming. "This serves as a reminder that your only child is part of a family and does not need to be the center of attention at all time - even during difficult periods."

A key thing to remember is "social distancing doesn't mean social isolation," says Mario Lippy, Arizona-based clinical psychologist and director of Jewish Family and Children's Services. (In fact, the World Health Organization prefers the term "physical distancing.") Explain to your only that social distancing doesn't mean they can't talk to friends remotely. It is important, Libby says, that they engage with someone who is "willing to listen and be present."

The pandemic blurs the days because most activities center in and around home. Newman recommends parents do something they don't normally do. Go outside and garden, play catch in the backyard or sew masks together. "Try to take focus away from the child and encourage them that the world is wider," Newman says. It is important to set a time to do this activity together. This accomplishes two things: It gives them something to look forward to, and helps build bonds and memories in the midst of this pandemic. I've included playing checkers into our nightly routine. Whoever wins the most games gets a cash prize at the end of the month.

There are plenty of things that kids can do online to stay active and engaged, says William Marsh, a psychologist at Southwest Behavioral Health Services in Arizona. "There are online platforms for board games, video chats, yoga, scavenger hunts, virtual exploration in museums and academic resources for kids." Parents can have a collaborative relationship with their child by taking an online course together.

Newman agrees. "For the only, using electronics to connect is invaluable. Let them FaceTime, text or play online games with their friends, and engage in a video chat to see the wider world in terms of family."

With no rushing to school or extracurricular activities, there's more time to reflect. "This is an optimal time for people, even children, to rewrite their stories," Marsh says. "Encourage children to ask what they want this time to mean for them and what values they want to work on. It is a great time for a family to learn about one another and spend some quality time together." Journaling is a great way for an only to channel their frustrations.

As human beings, we are geared toward touch. "If your household is healthy and well, encourage caregivers and parents to provide hugs," Lippy says. Once a day I try to offer my daughter a hug, and sometimes she resists, but I make an effort to connect with her via touch.

It is an optimal time to learn a new skill and build rituals. Starting a habit of cooking a meal together or explore recipes. "In this period of time, you are building your child's memory bank, you want to build in positive memories," Newman says.

The news is frightening for adults. Imagine how it affects children. It's especially important to limit news consumption for only children because they have fewer distractions to occupy their attention.

There are some positives from this social distancing. "Children will learn more responsibility, pay more attention to personal hygiene and be aware of what's going on in the world outside of their bubble," Newman says. In the past four weeks, my daughter has cooked homemade pasta, baked peanut butter cookies and hosted a FaceTime sleepover.

Last week I heard my daughter's laughter from the other room. She was FaceTiming with the friend she couldn't hike with, talking about what they are going to do when the pandemic is over. She was moving forward, making plans and recognizing that social distancing is temporary. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Rudri Bhatt Patel is a former lawyer turned writer and editor.

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