Social distancing: Parents with only children are facing different challenges

Social distancing will be hardest on teens, who are naturally more peer-oriented, a school psychologist said.
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Thanks to the social distancing practices brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, siblings are learning to rely on each other for entertainment in the absence of their friends. Sure, they may fight over the video game controls and get on each other’s nerves, but they have each other to play with when mom heads out to work or dad closes the door to his virtual office.

For only children, social distancing can be downright lonely. Not only have parents of only children become their children’s teachers, but they’ve become their built-in playmates, too. Some parents worry that their companionship just isn’t enough to bridge the gap.

Genevieve Buck, 42, mother to 14-year-old Samantha, lives in Portsmouth with her husband and works two jobs: one as a Disney vacation planner and another as a part-time job office associate for a company that distributes commercial laundry equipment.

As an essential worker, Buck still is able to work her second job. Samantha, a Portsmouth High School student, is an only child who now socializes with her fellow teens exclusively through the online video program, Zoom. Recently, she attended a friend’s birthday party “virtually.” She and her friends watched Netflix together at the “party.” Still, the computer is a poor substitute for the daily interaction Samantha, a field hockey player, usually enjoyed before schools moved to remote learning. She misses seeing her friends.

“She was very sad, and I said that it is OK to feel sad and miss them; this is no fun for any of us,” Buck said. “Most days she is home alone while my husband and I go to work. I have let go of being as strict with phone time as that is now her only way of communicating with her friends.”

Buck and Samantha make time for daily walks and even play field hockey together; Genevieve said she makes a conscious effort to be with her daughter to talk and listen.

“I am making sure I make a connection with her and make sure she is OK and knows she is not really alone,” she said.

For younger only children, parents find it difficult to fill those social gaps while they juggle the demands of their own jobs.

Amanda DeGiovanni, 34, of Hampton, is mom to her only child, Brecken, a four-year-old who had attended a child care center in Hampton Falls before the pandemic shut his center down. DeGiovanni works for a nonprofit organization that supports adults with developmental disabilities. Her job has quickly changed into a virtual one and now requires her to create videos for clients while she cares for Brecken.  She said she experiences “mom guilt” for allowing Brecken more screen time so that she can work.

“I don’t want to park my child in front of the TV; however, I have to keep his attention on something to complete my job,” she said.

Brecken had received speech therapy at school and is now receiving those same services over Zoom, which DeGiovanni said is going better than she expected. They’ve used this technology to keep in touch with school friends in addition to going on daily walks and scooter rides together, where they get to see neighborhood dogs and kids from a distance.

While DeGiovanni works, she tries to keep Brecken has busy as possible with musical instruments, movement toys, and  anything else he can find in his playroom or bedroom. While Amanda doesn’t think a few weeks of social distancing will have any long-term effects on Brecken, she does experience the stress of ensuring he is entertained.

“I want him to succeed in self-play and seek out whatever it is that gets him engaged. But overall, he wants a playmate—me,” she said. “I can only play so much without stressing about housework, my job requirements, and time for myself.”

For parents of only children who feel guilt and worry that several weeks of social distancing might have a negative, lasting effect, Sarah Wagner, a school psychologist who works in Epping, offers reassurance.

Wagner, of Lee, is mother to a six-year-old only child who attends kindergarten. She and her husband, also an educator, are both working remotely and juggle working remotely with spending time with their daughter. They have helped her socialize with peers through brief video chats. Together as a family, they play board games and outdoor sports to continue giving their daughter age-opportunities to practice taking turns, winning and losing, and problem solving.

“I have learned that taking the time to do something with her—even if it’s only for 10 minutes, every couple of hours, has helped considerably,” she said.

Social distancing will be hardest on teens, who are naturally more peer-oriented, whether they are only children or have siblings, Wagner said.

“Younger teens in the height of moodiness and irritability, which is likely to lead to conflict at home when parents and children are spending so much time at home isolated together,” she said. “The good news, if that’s how you choose to see it, is that our teens today are so adept at using texting, social media, Xbox, and other technologies as a way to connect with kids. In fact, that is how they socialize today, so social distancing is really not changing the way they interact with peers all that much.”

Kids of all ages who are used to very structured schedules that include organized after-school activities like sports aren’t used to having a lot of downtime and may be experiencing boredom for the first time. Parents shouldn’t feel like they have to fill these gaps, Wagner said.

“Being bored is actually good for kids and for their social/emotional development. Parents should not feel like they need to rescue their children from this discomfort. It is by moving through this discomfort themselves that children learn to self-regulate, invent, imagine and create,” she said.

The good news for parents is that this period of extended social distancing will not only come to an end,  but it is unlikely to adversely affect an only child’s social skills. Children are incredibly resilient and do fine, provided they receive enough nurturing and connection at home. What Wagner said she is more concerned about is children reacting to the anxiety that their parents are feeling as a result of the pandemic.

“We are an anxious society to begin with, and I know this pandemic is creating very real fears for many adults regarding their own physical and financial health and that of their family and friends,” she said. “Parents need to be in tune to any major changes in their child’s behavior that may indicate they are becoming anxious, such as crying more than usual, being withdrawn, sleeping more or less, irritability and moodiness, anger, outbursts, etc. All of these can be signs of anxiety.”

Buck credits the teachers and staff at Portsmouth High School for doing a great job with online learning but is looking forward to the day when Samantha is able to see her friends in the school halls.  She does believe that social distancing is harder for families who have an only child.

“Even if your kids are not the best of buds, they have each other when the parents are stressed out or one parent is losing it,” she said. “But as an only, you are by yourself with no one to share that experience with.”

 Krysten Godfrey Maddocks is a former journalist and marketing director who now regularly writes for higher education and technology organizations in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Krysten won three awards – gold, silver and bronze – for writing from the Parenting Media Association in 2020.


Categories: COVID-19, Teen