What does a year of isolation and anxiety do to a developing brain?
Starting on April 6, a bearded and earnest neuroscientist at the University of Oregon named Philip Fisher began to send a digital questionnaire — at first weekly, and then, beginning in August, biweekly — to a representative group of a thousand American families with young children. He’s curious about how they and their kids are doing. They aren’t doing so well.
At first, writing into blank spaces on the questionnaire as if they were diaries, parents conveyed a fresh sense of surprise at their new reality. They observed their kids’ sudden regressions and general nervousness as novelties. Toilet-trained children were wetting their beds, and kids who once went to sleep easily became hard to soothe, waking at night or crawling in with their parents. “My son is suddenly scared of everything,” one Ohio parent wrote in the first week of June. An Arizona parent corroborated: “Our 2-year-old has had a very sudden increase in separation anxiety. She doesn’t like it when we leave the room, and at night she takes a long time to fall asleep because she doesn’t want us to go.”
By summer, the cabin fever and separation from friends, as well as the disruption of routine, were taking a toll. At week 12, 79 percent of parents of kids under 5 said their children were more fussy and defiant than before, and 41 percent of their children were more fearful or anxious. Harried parents reported frequent tantrums and incessant, escalating sibling fights. One young boy in New York mourned the loss of his day care, shuttered for more than two months, and chanted the name of each child in his class every night in an incantation of grief. Just after the Fourth of July, a mother in Missouri noted that her daughter had gotten more demanding, wanting extra attention especially when she was on video calls. That same week, a young mother in Pennsylvania worried that four months of isolation had been “devastating” to her daughter’s mental health. “She really needs to get back in counseling, but we’re concerned about exposure.”
The trend lines showed an interesting pattern. Until the first week of August, fear and anxiety toggled up and down but always hovered around 40 percent of responses, like a fever that’s stable but just won’t break. But by late summer, that line became jagged, spiking up to about 53 percent in the third week of August, then sinking to 36 percent in early October, only to rise again to 50 percent the following week. Meanwhile, the number of kids who were fussy or defiant never fell below 70 percent. “Our 6-month-old cries the entire day. The entire day,” wrote one late-30s mother in Ohio in the middle of August. “Every moment she’s awake, she scream-cries. She cries so much her voice is hoarse. She gave herself a bloody nose yesterday. So our 4.5-year-old is reasonably distressed and just hangs out in the basement or hides in our home ‘office’ with his earphones on.” As school started, the bed-wetting continued. Children who had mature vocabularies regressed to baby talk. And then fall came with its catastrophes. “Now the fires are going, and we really can’t go out,” wrote one mother in California. “I wonder how this affects my baby’s development.”
In mid-November, New York City schools closed down again, after two months of ill-attended in-person instruction. Across California, where San Francisco and Los Angeles hadn’t even tried to open their schools, a new wave of shelter-in-place guidelines were announced. New records were set, nationally, for coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, and across the country, parents who had let themselves breathe a little bit during the summer and early fall found themselves staring down a grim, bunkered winter — this global experiment in child psychology lasting perhaps another six months. The returns so far are distressing. A recent study in JAMA Pediatrics found that in Hubei province, where COVID-19 raged during the winter months of 2020, school-age children who quarantined for just 30 days reported measurably more depression and anxiety than similar pre-pandemic cohorts. A small Harvard study on the effects of the pandemic has found that caregiver-reported depression, anxiety, and misbehavior among American kids in the general population to have reached levels typically seen only in those previously diagnosed with a form of mental disorder. According to a literature review out of the University of Bath, persistent loneliness and isolation among children of the kind that has become quite widespread during the pandemic can lead to suicidal ideation and self-harm and to significant depression. “The kids will carry these experiences through life,” Fisher told me. “And it’s not going to be good.”
Throughout the pandemic, parents have often expressed their concern for their kids in terms of external forces: the closures of schools, the absence of friends, the replacement of every human interaction with screens. They wonder what future neuroses will grow from mask-wearing and handwashing and being shut in, what ruination of outlook will result from breathing the air of political and racist animosity, climate-change paralysis, constant fear of contagion, and the prospect of death. But psychology researchers regard calamities differently. They look at the environments in which kids live. In particular, they look at the parents: How well are they able to protect their children from the storms outside? And what kind of supports do they have to help them?
Fisher describes the parent-child dynamic in terms of “serve and return.” He isn’t talking about tennis; serve and return is psychologyspeak for the essential signals that travel continuously between young kids and their parents or the people who care for them. A baby fusses or wails or droolingly smiles; the caregiver notices and responds with a diaper change, a warmed bottle, a sloppy raspberry kiss. This constant exchange and recognition is the bedrock of the evolutionary business we now call “parenting.” Fisher focuses his research on kids 5 and under, and though serve and return refers to that cohort, parental balance and reassurance are protective at every age.
What Fisher worries about now is how many young children — what portion of America’s 20 million kids under 5 — are serving into a void. He starts with the premise that parents love their kids and want to care for them, that even overwhelmed humans know in their cells how to nurture. But after 37 weeks of pandemic, too many American parents are too tapped out. Decades of research has definitively shown that the presence of a responsive caregiver, especially during early childhood, when the brain is extremely plastic, is the crucial ingredient in healthy development. This stable adult attention is exponentially more meaningful when children are growing up in persistent adversity: environments of neglect, abuse, deprivation, or poverty that medical and psychological professionals call “toxic stress.”
But when kids ask and they receive no answer, or when the answer they do receive is inconsistent, unpredictable, or cruel, the long-term consequences on development are dire. They include cognitive delays; learning problems; impulsivity or aggression on the one hand and numbness or lack of affect on the other; addiction and alcohol abuse; and social difficulties, including with romantic partners and authority figures. Children who grow up in environments of toxic stress, without the buffering presence of a responsive adult, struggle as they get older — not just with more psychiatric disorders but with higher rates of asthma, diabetes, teen pregnancy, and lower educational outcomes. Toxic stress was already endemic before this pandemic. Too many families were struggling to keep it together. And now there are too many more.
The 250,000 dead — that’s just the beginning, with each one of these deaths afflicting children and grandchildren in varying degrees, always with grief, perhaps also with the loss of an indispensable caregiver or a beloved friend. More than 18,000 people between the ages of 25 and 54 have died of the virus, many of them parents with children at home. But the suffering isn’t limited to the dying or those who mourn them. The experience of those who’ve stayed healthy, inhabiting the same crowded spaces as their kids, has been grueling. Burnout is rampant everywhere, even among the well-to-do. Parents are keeping it together while children dangle off their laps on Zoom, juggling meetings to help with science assignments while everyone squabbles over unending household chores. These are the lucky ones. Eleven million people are unemployed, city eviction moratoriums are coming to an end, and federal aid is petering out with no infusion of money in sight. In July, a Brookings Institution analysis showed that 16 percent of American families were experiencing child food insecurity (up from 3 percent two years ago), which means that 14 million kids sometimes don’t have enough to eat.
“There are huge inequalities in parents’ ability to create a predictable environment, and those disparities are widening,” said Katie McLaughlin, a psychologist at Harvard who is studying the effects of the pandemic on teens. “That doesn’t take away from the fact that we are all experiencing this. We no longer have the ability to predict what the next month is going to look like. How are we going to organize our lives? It’s a risk factor that really cuts across the board.”
It’s all too much. “The extent to which parents are not saying ‘I’m okay; I can still do this even though it’s hard’ is deafening,” Fisher told me, a notion echoed in responses on his questionnaire. “I’m exhausted,” an Arizona parent wrote back in July. “It’s hard to get out of bed every day and go to work. I want to yell at my son all the time and it’s not his fault.”
Christian’s grandmother Laurie and a family friend, Ty, often get lost even trying to interface the school’s remote-learning program. Photo: Brenda Ann Kenneally
The kids who are suffering most in this pandemic are the kids who were already suffering most. Kids with intellectual or physical disabilities, for example, whose lives depend on reliable schedules or in-person care, are disconnected from their lifelines. In Fisher’s data, their emotional difficulties are at a peak. And there have always been children growing up in a desert of adult attention or for whom that attention was a threat. For these children, home may never have been a refuge, and they are not helped by Zoom.
“I’m concerned most about children who don’t have an adult who’s thinking about them and doing what needs to be done,” said Ann Masten, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota who studies resilience in kids. “I worry about kids who are isolated. Or children who are now at home in a dangerous situation. They’re hidden. The kids we used to monitor — we don’t see them anymore. Or they’re homeless, moving around. We don’t encounter them, and they’re suffering in quiet silence. Isolation is a necessity right now, but some children are much more isolated than others. That really worries me.” In October, an article from the Chicago Tribune circulated on an email chain among the highest ranks of the American Psychological Association. It described a 7-year-old girl who was sexually assaulted during online school. The teacher told the other children to log off. She called the police, and the assailant was arrested, but for this child, the loss of in-person school and the eyes-on attention of teachers is more than an inconvenience or a blip; it’s dangerous.
Charles Zeanah, a psychiatrist who works in New Orleans with vulnerable kids, told me that in the first months of the pandemic, he was delighted with all the therapeutic work he found he could achieve on Zoom, but more recently, he’s been stuck thinking about the fact that he never knows who is lurking just outside the frame. “When people are all huddled in their homes, it’s very hard to know what’s happening,” he said. “We’re all acutely aware and concerned about it, and have an increased level of vigilance, but if the sources of information aren’t there, they aren’t there.” New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a 24 percent spike over last year in emergency visits for mental-health issues among 5-to-11-year-olds and a 31 percent rise among 12-to-17-year-olds. Researchers speculate that this rise is, at least in part, due to a lack of access to mental-health care that would have been otherwise available at school; it also comes at a time when Americans have been reluctant to visit the hospital for any reason. Or to even, for stretches of the spring and summer, go outside. One Montana mother wrote in Fisher’s questionnaire that she was keeping her kids indoors indefinitely because her neighbors, also cooped up, had set free their dogs, which were now roaming wild.
An inability to pay the bills leads directly to anxiety and depression in adults, and the anxiety and depression of parents leads, within two or three weeks, to mental-health problems in children. Fisher was able to measure this chain reaction. The more difficulty parents reported paying the bills one week, the more emotional distress they reported the following week. The more distress these parents said they were in, the more distress they observed in their children the week after that. A recent paper from Harvard corroborated the finding: In the pandemic, the mental health of children is “significantly correlated” to that of their parents.
As struggles continue, the effects deepen. Toxic stress is a cumulative condition, and it does not discriminate. A landmark study conducted between 1995 and 1997 by the CDC and Kaiser Permanente found that the more adverse experiences children have in life — violence at home, suicidal or mentally ill family members, instability owing to family separation — the likelier they are to suffer from severe developmental and health problems, including disrupted neurodevelopment; social, emotional, and cognitive impairment; and early death. And though more affluent parents can afford to buy themselves more bandwidth — a country house, a nanny, a pod — their children are not immune. Mental illness, substance abuse, and the stresses of solo parenting afflict their families too.
As with the scale of the pandemic itself, the numbers of those suffering secondary consequences are almost too large to grasp. There are 74 million kids under 18 in the U.S., which is to say more children in America than there are Trump voters, a greater number than the population of France. And the collective shrug of big business, policy-makers, and government with regard to the fates of these children amounts to wholesale abandonment. (“I’m kind of discouraged, frankly, right now,” Senator John Cornyn said weakly of the congressional impasse holding up additional relief funds.) In September, Fisher’s research showed that 60 percent of Black, Latinx, and single-parent families were facing at least one material hardship: difficulty paying for rent, food, utilities, or health care. It also showed that 40 percent of all American families were facing these hardships. “There’s an erosion of well-being that’s directly tied to money and the ability to pay for basic needs,” Fisher said. “There’s no reason to think people are going to be able to engage in nurturing ways with their kids when they’re worrying about food. This is a perfect storm of toxic stress. With what we know about how vulnerable kids are to stress early in life, it’s just shocking to me the way that it’s all adding up. We’re all going over the edge together.”
Decades before rat studies showed that calm rat mothers who frequently lick their offspring raised calmer, more curious rat pups, and that when a rat pup born to an anxious mother was switched into the care of a more attentive rat, that pup showed changes in its brain cells and in its gene activity — decades before that, there was Anna Freud. The daughter of Sigmund Freud, she fled to London from Vienna on the eve of World War II and helped to open three orphanages there. Beginning in 1939, in an effort to protect kids from the trauma of constant bombing and to free parents to work on behalf of the war, the British government moved 1.5 million children from cities to homes in the countryside. But Freud believed that the separation from parents was more traumatic than the war itself, and in her “nurseries,” mothers — overburdened by work or illness or other family duties — were invited to visit, and stay, for as long as they wished. War “breaks up family life and uproots the first emotional attachments within the family group,” she wrote in War and Children, her clinical diary and the first major project to attempt to assess the effects of disaster on kids. London children “were on the whole much less upset by bombing than by evacuation to the country as a protection against it.”
Freud wrote, for example, about a child named Patrick, who, at 3, had been living between a shelter in the London Tube and at home with his parents. After Patrick got the measles and doctors warned that he should not sleep in the Tube (though he was no longer contagious), his mother dropped him at Freud’s nursery, instructing him not to cry. After she left, Patrick fell apart. Over the next few days, Patrick announced to everyone, “My mother will put on my overcoat and take me home again,” a mantra that he embellished as time went on. “She will put on my overcoat and my leggings, she will zip up the zipper, she will put on my pixie hat,” he would repeatedly say. When someone asked if he could stop this recitation, he complied. He internalized it, standing apart from the other children and mouthing the words over and over without saying them out loud. Soon he stopped eating and only drank milk. Nursery staff reached out to his mother, who was invited to sleep there as long as she liked. Within several days of her arrival, Patrick was himself again.
Toby Levy was 8 years old in 1942 when she went into hiding in what is now Ukraine, and what she remembers most are her parents’ expressions of helplessness and fear. There were nine people hiding for two years in a barn near Lviv, and for all that time, and for many years after, Levy’s parents were unable to explain or translate for her what was happening to her or why. When she looked out the window and saw a child shot, her parents told her not to look out the window anymore. Even now, at nearly 87, she can see the fear in her father’s face. “An empty look. Shallow. Eyes bulged out. Fear. You look at your parents, and you understand it’s a catastrophe, and you have no idea why.” She couldn’t go out. There was no school. There were four children in the hiding place — her elder sister, herself, and two younger cousins — and “we learned not to cough, not to sneeze, not to snore.”
After the war, when her parents were able to talk to their children again, they tried to find words to explain, but Levy had already internalized their fear and eventually passed it along to her own children. She was a nervous parent. She has a daughter and a son, and “I was always afraid to let them go outside, afraid they would never come back. Who knows what’s going to happen? The fear!” Her children, in their 60s now, still complain: “ ‘You didn’t let us drive. You didn’t let us go out.’ They both needed therapy for years.”
Now, in this pandemic, she finds that some of her children and grandchildren have fears out of proportion to the threat. A grandson called to naïvely say that, because of quarantine, he finally understood her childhood trauma. “I said, ‘No, This isn’t a holocaust. This isn’t life or death.’ ” Her son, a physician, understands the distinction better. But she still thinks he is too nervous around his kids, who are 2 and 4 years old. He cautions them constantly on the playground. He hovers, not liking them to take undue risks. He left the city as soon as he could, first stopping in the Poconos before landing on Long Island. “I said, ‘All this stress, you’re going to give it to the kids.’ My own fears went to my children. With my son — he knows it’s not like the Holocaust — but there is a fear in the house, and fear and children is a very bad thing.” (The son, who doesn’t want to be named, agrees that in his family there’s intergenerational fear. “Whether it’s anxiety or depression or overachieving, those things are passed on. My parents’ generation, they all get a free pass. But my issues are my issues, absolutely.”)
When asked what other period of history this pandemic is like, researchers can sound a lot like Levy. They’re tempted to draw comparisons, but they hedge, because comparisons are imperfect. (He and his children have freedom, Levy’s son points out. As a child in hiding, his mother did not.) Nothing like this global pandemic has ever happened before. And who can say how one child out of 74 million will endure a crisis and, in that case, how helpful can comparisons be? For social scientists, every disaster — whether war or hurricane or toxic spill — presents a morass of variables, and each child’s individual case is complicated by too many to make perfect or even actionable projections. It’s not just parents who define children’s responses to crisis, nor socioeconomic status, age, race, or gender. It’s proximity to the crisis and more ineffable qualities such as temperament, luck, and access to help. Moreover, each catastrophe is bound by time and culture and so, in important ways, inapplicable to the moment at hand. The settler family half-starved in the prairie cabin in a winter of blizzards didn’t have FaceTime.
Yet generalizing is psychology’s job: establishing what can be known about how humans thrive. In the Blitz, it became clear that children fare better in the company of parents, even if those parents are sleeping in the Tube, and worse if separated by them, even if transported to the idyllic countryside. After the Holocaust, researchers began to use the word scarring to describe the emotional capacity of child survivors as they grew into adults. Studies of the effects of hurricanes Hugo and Andrew on kids found that, in the immediate aftermath, 30 to 50 percent of the children at the epicenter had PTSD (with “reexperiencing” being the most common symptom). Within a year, most kids had reverted to baseline, but symptoms persisted in a third of the children. After 9/11, researchers found the highest levels of trauma among kids who were injured or caught in the dust cloud. Researchers of that disaster also began studying media consumption, finding that the youngest children fail to understand that television images repeat. Every falling tower was new to them.
Extrapolating from previous research, said McLaughlin at Harvard, it’s fair to guess that, even in this pandemic, about half of kids will do just fine. Another 20 percent will have high symptoms of distress that recede over time. But in 15 to 30 percent of kids, those symptoms will persist. The scale of the pandemic means that as many as 22 million could bear scars. If earlier research holds, girls will show their distress through anxiety and depression, while boys will act out through aggression, defiance, and risky behavior. The youngest kids are probably the most at risk, and the intensity of their response will be linked to their perception of threat — a perception passed down from their parents.
This appears to be true even of fetuses. The Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986 spewed radioactive elements over 57,000 square miles. Propelled by fire and lifted by wind, the radiation traveled to parts of Western Europe, where grazing cows ate nuclear grass — and fear of contamination ranged over a much wider swath. No one knew how far the radiation had spread, how potent it was, or when it would dissipate, producing what Masten calls “a massive fear vector” among the inhabitants of neighboring countries. And in 2008, an international team of psychologists showed that the stress among pregnant women in Finland, 800 miles from the site, was so intense and so long-lasting that it was transmitted to their gestating fetuses. Teenagers who were in utero during the Chernobyl nuclear disaster had elevated cortisol, the human stress hormone that has been shown to alter the developing brain. (A similar result was found among children who were gestating during 9/11.)
But researchers emphasize that analogies, though imperfect, can suggest interventions, too. Positive parenting — consistent praise and discipline — ameliorated symptoms of PTSD in Israeli and Palestinian youth, and after 9/11, levels of PTSD in kids were correlated with the anxiety and impatience of their parents. A body of research has shown that persistent or acute marital conflict between parents can lead to adjustment problems in kids. In Belfast during the Troubles, children displayed heightened anxiety, depression, and behavioral problems if the local violence frayed their parents’ marriage, and beginning in 1989, a sociologist named Rand Conger studying the collapse of family farms in Iowa in the 1980s found a chain reaction among economic distress and marital conflict and, down the line, behavior and emotional problems in kids. He went into farmhouses with a video camera and recalls how tense some families seemed, with open hostility between parents, or the opposite, total withdrawal, and kids who found the family dinner table too stressful to bear. Discipline in some of these homes was harsh, or inconsistent. Kids in these families “will do less well at school, have a hard time with relationships, be at more risk for delinquent or deviant behaviors,” he told me. Conger remembers one child in particular, a 13- or 14-year-old boy, who seemed already to have given up, abandoning his ambition and drive, saying all he wanted was a paycheck and a steady job — anything to avoid replicating in his future the present hell he was in.
Conger worked alongside the eminent chronicler of children in the Great Depression, a sociologist named Glen Elder, whose earlier work had found that marital harmony — and, by extension, attentive parenting — could be maintained if the mother made herself, in effect, the human barrier between the stresses of the outside world and the refuge of the home. Economic pressures would then fall on the breadwinner husband, but “as long as the wife supported the husband, there was a lot less chaos in the home” and kids would do better. Conger acknowledges that it was a different time.
As of October, more than 2 million women have dropped out of the workforce, many for good. The number of women working has fallen to the lowest level since 1988. In one sense, these women are solving a practical problem: Nine months since the country’s schools shut down, nearly 60 percent of American kids are still learning entirely online and someone needs to look after them. Women flooded the workplace over the past 30 years, but as they did, no one — not employers, governments, or, for the most part, spouses — picked up in any meaningful or systemic way the main job they left behind: the day-to-day business of caring for children. “Other countries have social safety nets. The U.S. has women,” the sociologist Jessica Calarco recently said.
The pandemic has overburdened everyone, but that weight rests more on some. This is true throughout the country, where the same groups disproportionately infected with COVID-19 are those whose children are expressing the most emotional distress. And it’s true within families, where mothers continue to do most of the emotional and practical work of running the household even when they have jobs and partners at home. (More than a third of women between 25 and 44 say they are not working due to child-care issues, compared to 12 percent of men. And women are more worried and anxious than men.) A child at home is an irrefutable priority, putting too many mothers in an impossible bind, especially if their income contributes significantly (or exclusively) to the family’s bottom line. More than 15 million American children are raised by single mothers; if that mother quits work, who’s paying the rent?
And the more women stay home to care for children, the more pay gaps, savings gaps, and glass ceilings persist. “This is creating a throwback situation,” Fisher acknowledged. “But what are you supposed to do? The sources we’ve relied on for nurturing relationships are untenable.” In countless American homes, in every socioeconomic group, school provides the adult attention, the predictable schedule, and the meals that kids need while parents work. Without school, there’s nothing. “Education is child care,” Fisher said.
“I keep reading these stories — and this really pushes my buttons — that say, ‘If parents will just go do their five-minute mindfulness app, everything will be okay.’ But, really, who can do that?” Fisher asked. In mid-June, he reported that his survey showed a 30 percent increase in marital conflict in all families and a 56 percent rise in conflict with kids. In September, an article in the New England Journal of Medicine warned of a coming COVID-related surge in domestic violence. The hotlines had grown eerily quiet since March, the authors said, because abusers and their victims were cooped up together, but they expected the numbers to rise once people left quarantine and started to move about again. In too many of Fisher’s questionnaire responses, an atmosphere of threat lurks between the lines. In early July, a mother in Ohio was wrestling with whether to send her son to an “incredibly unsanitary” day care (because “real” day care was unaffordable for her) or keep him at home. She wrote, “My husband is an addict and incredibly moody and can’t handle small stressors nor make decisions and is angry all the time. My son won’t sleep at night.”
Fisher’s colleague Nathan Fox, a psychologist at the University of Maryland, has done 20 years of groundbreaking research in Romanian orphanages on the effects of neglect on the brain development of children. Of this pandemic, he said, “We are creating a generation of children who will cost us more in terms of the health-care system and the judicial system and the educational system than it would have cost to provide them with adequate support.”
Spring will come. There will be teachers again with eyes on kids and in-person social workers and doctors and librarians. They will help do the job of paying attention, of answering questions. There will be a vaccine. This period, like a war, will end. And like a war, its effects will linger, too. Children will tell their children about what it was like to grow up now, in the year of no school, no parties, no playdates, no kissing.
Kids are resilient. It is possible to reverse the destructive effects of toxic stress on the developing brain. Astonishing research on child soldiers in Sierra Leone has shown that even after years of conscription, forced participation in murder and rape, half of kids mostly recover. Structure and routine help. McLaughlin is in the midst of a large study on children and young teenagers, and it shows that the more predictability they have in their lives, even amid profound unpredictability, the better they do. “I keep telling parents, ‘One week at a time. Wednesday we’re having pizza. Every day we’re going to put on clothes, not stay in our pajamas,’ ” said Harold Koplewicz, director of the Child Mind Institute in New York. “You have to try to model calm, and when you’re not feeling calm, you say it: ‘I’m feeling stressed right now. I’m going to read a book. I’m going to sit with my thoughts. I’m going to walk outside or do jumping jacks.’ ”
In the moment, teenagers are suffering a lot, their developmental need to be with their friends directly at odds with being shut in with their parents. (Good communication between parents and teens is thus bolstering, too.) Jennifer Pfeifer at the University of Oregon has seen a 35 percent increase in depression in kids ages 9 to 18 in the pandemic, a spike she calls “alarming but not unexpected.” And their comparative cognitive sophistication is a double-edged sword. They understand the existential fallout of a death, an illness, or a lost job. But at the same time, they are able to take some perspective, and also to reach out to try to help. “I think of the way young people have thrown themselves into get-out-the-vote efforts. You can be on a text campaign to get voters out in Pennsylvania when you live in rural Oregon. It’s just a matter of identifying opportunities and facilitating access. But so many adolescents are living in families where there’s a struggle to meet basic needs. It’s hard to think about how to find resilience in that situation.” In her studies, Pfeifer has found a “nontrivial” number of teenagers flouting social-distancing restrictions to be with their friends. She also has found that the stricter the community quarantine rules, the more emotional distress the teenagers are in.
But there are indications in Pfeifer’s data and elsewhere that the total disruption of school has been a benefit to certain middle- and high-schoolers for whom regular school has long been a source of stress and anxiety. Kids with social anxiety are relieved and relaxed. For kids with test or achievement anxiety, the pressure is lighter. “She is living her best life,” I’ve heard several parents say of teenagers in their rooms, doing Zoom school, chatting online. “The pandemic is destigmatizing distress and day-to-day mental-health challenges,” McLaughlin said. “There was already a trend in this direction, with teenagers more open to talking about feeling depressed and anxious, and the pandemic is fueling that. We don’t have to pretend we’re all good, because we are not.”
Rhonda Johnson lives in Minneapolis and grew up near where George Floyd was killed. At 50-something, she cares for her daughter’s three children, whom she adopted after her daughter became unable to take care of them. The youngest, Julian, is 9. He has autism and some other academic challenges. “This whole distance-learning thing has posed a pretty big challenge for us,” she told me.
When the pandemic hit, Johnson’s home life was completely derailed. First Julian came down with COVID, so the whole family had to quarantine. Johnson, who is a single parent and works at a day-care center, needed to return to work as soon as possible, but all the kids were home. The oldest, Miles, is 15 and can stay home alone, but Victoria, who is 10, “is kind of spunky — I would rather have her have some adult supervision,” Johnson said, and Julian needs care.
“I was damned if I do, damned if I don’t,” she said. “If I don’t go to work and get hours, I don’t make the money. If I don’t make the money, I can’t pay for them to live.” So Johnson started to bring the two youngest kids with her to work, an option for employees. But it isn’t free. “I was bringing Victoria and Julian to day care all day to be with me and then I picked up a paycheck and it was like $53.” So Johnson sat Miles down and told him he had to do more. “I’m going to need you to step up and keep an eye on your siblings sometimes and then when you want $20 for that game, I got you.” Miles does, but the child-care problem isn’t really solved. Miles has the option of sometimes staying with relatives on his father’s side. And Victoria has a best friend whose family is happy to take her in. Victoria loves the family, especially the friend’s mother. “Because I’m the grandma and the mom is absent, she is just kind of thirsty for that mother feeling, that mother love, that mother figure. They come and get her and then two days later, they’re calling me and saying, ‘Can Victoria come back?’ ”
The start of the school year presented new challenges. Each kid is at a different school, so “they all have to log on at different times. It’s pretty chaotic.” And Julian needs constant supervision. “If I turn my back, he is just so easily distracted. He is off the computer doing something else, playing with his Beyblades or his Pokémon cards or turning on the TV.”
So Johnson laid down some rules. “We don’t do school on beds. We don’t do school on couches. We sit at a table or at a desk. We have to engage and be on time.” There are two baskets of masks by the door: one for clean, and one for dirty.
And then she did the thing that the data is beginning to reflect. She cut her own hours, reducing her already minimal pay, in order to be reliably present for her kids. She used to work six days a week, taking Mondays off for household chores and errands. Now she works Tuesday through Friday, one to six, in order to be there, especially for Julian. Thirty-two hours have turned into fewer than 20, but it’s worth it, she said. She makes a hot breakfast for Julian every day, a reward for his focus on school. “He’s been having pancakes, and it’s kind of lovely to have that time at home in the morning. At the same time, my paychecks, they’re pretty puny. But it’s worth it to make sure my scholars” — she calls her kids scholars — “are able to do this. The way I look at it, this isn’t just temporary. It’s going to be a new way of life for us. We’ve got to get a routine and adhere to it.”
And when I ask Johnson if she worries about her kids, about how they’ll do in the future, she answers yes. But her response has nothing to do with COVID at all. She is thinking about life- and health-threatening forces in place long before COVID and for which there is no immediate treatment or vaccine. “Miles is about to start driving. It’s scary. It’s scary because of the reality of systemic racism. It’s scary to think about my boy being out in this world. I hope I’ve equipped him with good judgment and confidence and everything he needs to keep himself safe out there.”