Why too much family togetherness might be stressing out kids
Parents aren’t the only ones who feel like hiding in a closet. Here’s why children might need a break from family, too.
Is there such a thing as too much togetherness? Sarah Anderson’s 11-year-old son would say yes—especially during a pandemic. Like many families in 2020, the Andersons were working and learning from a crowded home. But when squabbles arose between her two boys, Anderson’s eldest son would slip outside to the family’s Roswell, Georgia, backyard and act out stories and movies he made up in his head.
“He would tell us he was going to log on to his ‘brain app,’” Anderson says. After about 20 minutes, he’d come back inside, more relaxed, talkative, and ready to hang out with the family again.
Turning inward is not something parents typically encourage in children, but recent research suggests we should perhaps rethink that. Before pandemic lockdowns, children were busier than ever with school and organized activities, and well-meaning parents often arranged playdates or family activities to fill any gaps in the schedule. With those activities still limited and parents working remotely, many families have been in a state of near-constant togetherness for more than a year.
But many experts say that what kids need more of is alone time—what our own parents might have called “quiet time”—to tinker, wander, and reflect. “We tend to get worried when kids choose to be alone, but from a developmental and mental health standpoint, it can be a very healthy way for kids to recharge,” says Jacob Priest, a University of Iowa professor who studies family relationships. “That may be especially true when the children are interacting with the same people day after day.”
Alone but together during the pandemic
Living 24/7 in suddenly crowded homes while social distancing showed many families how valuable alone time can be. Parents commiserated with one another about hiding in closets and cars to escape the children, but children got sick of siblings and grown-ups, too. Concerned that kids were lonely during the pandemic, many parents dialed up their helicopter tendencies—hovering during distance learning and scheduling board games and family hikes to fill free days.
Rather than bask in the extra attention, some kids grew irritable. “Healthy family relationships are built on time together, but also time apart,” Priest says. “When physical space is constrained, our need for more emotional space grows.”
Some younger kids struggled with having parents more present than ever yet not always available to play. For others, too much family interference with playtime triggered meltdowns. “Young kids flourish in child-directed play—when they create their own rules and make their own decisions,” says Nicholas Wagner, a Boston University professor and child psychology researcher. “Helpful” parents and big sibs can unintentionally create the opposite situation.
Older kids, still too young to take a solitary drive or solo errand, were often exasperated and annoyed, too. “Many kids had to share rooms and workspaces or take care of siblings more than usual, since parents were busy,” says Margarita Azmitia, who works with adolescents as an education professor at the University of Santa Cruz. She adds that precious few opportunities to escape the house—or even little siblings and parents in the house—left teens, who naturally seek independence, “feeling more ‘stuck’ than ever.”
The benefits of being alone
There are biological reasons why kids, like adults, crave alone time, especially when there’s a shortage of it. “Alone time supports children’s social, emotional, and cognitive development,” says Mark Bertin, a New York–based developmental pediatrician.
For instance, a 2019 study by Azmitia’s research team at the University of Santa Cruz found that teens who proactively sought out solitude experienced greater feelings of self-reflection, creative expression, and spiritual renewal. It can also boost confidence and critical thinking skills, because children must rely on their own wits to entertain themselves or work through problems.
“Being alone is important for children’s development, in that it gives them control and freedom to imagine and create,” says Sandra Stone, a professor emerita at Northern Arizona University and a children’s play researcher.
High-quality alone time can happen wherever kids can find peace and quiet, but Anderson’s son was onto something when he headed for the backyard for solitude. The outdoors is a particularly good place for quiet reflection. A 2020 study by North Carolina State University researchers found that children felt a stronger sense of well-being and connection to nature when doing solitary activities, like hiking, than when they spent time outside with friends.
Even though all kids benefit from alone time, naturally introverted kids might seek it out more than others. That doesn’t mean they’re lonely. “Being lonely is associated with sadness, and that’s something most parents can sense,” says Bobbi Wegner, a clinical psychologist and professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “But being alone and playing independently is a developmental need, and often brings great joy and pleasure to kids.”
How to encourage healthy alone time
Often a child will initiate alone time without prompts from parents. For instance, Kristen Hewitt was surprised when her highly social nine-year-old daughter started craving quiet in 2020. “Our littlest loves to be around people,” she says. “But during the pandemic I've noticed that even she prefers her room after school, or when she’s tired of her sister.”
But the pandemic year showed us that some kids need support in seeking solitude. “Allowing kids to get comfortable with quiet time does require effort from parents, at least initially,” Bertin says. Experts share these ideas:
Schedule alone time. For younger children, set a timer for a short interval—say, 10 minutes—and get busy with something else. “Don’t step in too soon to rescue a child if they’re really doing fine,” Bertin says. “We have to stick to our own boundaries: You’re on your own until lunchtime, then let’s play a game.”
Busy older kids need dedicated downtime. Parents can consider scheduling short “free periods” for kids as they would, say, soccer or piano lessons. Encourage children to set aside their devices and read something fun, explore outside, or pick up a toy or project they previously abandoned.
Set up space. Younger children sometimes feel more comfortable being alone in a family space. Think about “quiet corners” like beanbag chairs under stairwells, blanket-lined alcoves, or indoor teepees. Older kids often retreat to their bedrooms—let them, at least periodically. If nosy siblings are an issue, consider investing in a “Do Not Disturb” doorknob hanger for tweens and teens.
Encourage independent play. Plant simple toys—blocks, building sets, colored pencils—to make personal spaces inviting for kids. For four- to eight-year-olds, Stone reports success with setting out stringing beads, sensory items (like fur), and wood with sanding paper. Tweens and teens might busy themselves with cookie dough, materials for making fairy houses or birdhouses, origami and paper-mâché crafts, or solitary outdoor toys like bikes and sidewalk chalk.
Don’t confuse screen time with alone time. Busy parents often leave kids to their own devices—literally. Bertin sees online activity as “dessert,” but not a substitute for high-quality alone time: “There’s only so much potential solitary free time on any given day, and more screen time means fewer opportunities for quiet activities like reading, outdoor time, and creative play.”
Model healthy alone-time behavior. Let’s face it—kids aren’t the only ones who could stand to improve the quality of the alone time they spend. Adults, too, are guilty of filling free time with lingering work or social media scrolling. Making an effort to relax and reflect sets a tone for the whole family. “If you want your kids to embrace alone time, pay attention to how you’re valuing it for yourself,” Bertin says.
Anderson’s son has inspired his brother and parents to log into their own “brain apps” a little more often—and the whole family is often happier for it. “Honoring one another’s individual space actually improves the quality of our family time on the back end,” she says. “Everyone returns from their time alone a little more refreshed, a little more ready to be together again.”