How pandemic isolation is affecting young kids' developing minds

Many children under five years old have been "bunker babies" for almost two years. Experts explain what this means for different populations and how they will recover.

Jennifer McClure and her 19-month-old daughter Esme Smith began trying on masks in April 2020, not long after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio shuttered restaurants and closed schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, cases and deaths were soaring in the city, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had restricted all gatherings to less than 50 people. Wearing masks was mostly for play then, as the family didn’t venture beyond their front stoop in Harlem for several weeks. Today, McClure is among parents nationwide who worry about the long-term consequences pandemic restrictions will have on children under age five, who have spent formative years in extraordinary circumstances.

hen my granddaughter, Winnie, turned one in early 2020, she celebrated with a house full of family, friends, kids running around, cake, and balloons. That was the last large gathering she would experience until Christmas. When the COVID-19 pandemic locked down the United States in March, Winnie, along with millions of young children became what some have dubbed “bunker babies.” Learning to talk during this extraordinary time, one of her first words was “mask.”

Across the nation, daycare centers and schools were shuttered, some until fall 2021. Parents worked from home or lost jobs, and families hunkered down, sequestered at home. Some formed “pods” with those who shared similar safety rules. Many kids were taught to keep a safe distance from people to avoid infection. Others were given few restrictions.

Regardless of family protocols, children have been deprived of normal social interactions. After nearly two years, the under-fives remain in limbo. These kids are the last age group without access to a vaccine. While fewer young children develop severe illness from COVID-19 than adults, they remain at risk and there is always the possibility of long COVID.

Whether this early-childhood pandemic experience will herald long-term mental health, development, or academic consequences depends on each family’s individual challenges, says James Griffin, who heads the at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). “We're all in the same storm, but we're not in the same boat.”

Did a parent get laid off? Were they scrambling to work from home while caring for children? Did anyone get sick? Did they lose a loved one? Did kids have a routine and get one-on-one attention from a caregiver? Have they lived in an environment of omnipresent tension, fear, or depression?

“If children and families were struggling before, the pandemic likely made that worse,” Griffin says.

Many parents have been anxious about their kids missing out on normal life experiences, languishing in front of screens, growing up in a socially distanced world. They worry about the effects of isolation, disruption, loss of loved ones, economic pressure, and collective trauma on their children during critical early development, says Amy Learmonth, who studies cognitive development at William Paterson University.

“I don't think there are any parents of under-fives who are not still incredibly stressed,” Learmonth says.

My son, Nick Ruggia, initially wondered whether Winnie might be emotionally stunted or develop a distorted world view. Another father, Mike John, who lives with his family in Washington, D.C., expressed concerns about his younger daughter Luna’s social skills. “She hasn’t had much opportunity to engage in cooperative play—or just laugh and giggle at jokes that another four-year-old would understand,” he says. She now attends pre-K, wearing her KN-95 mask.

Pandemic may have little social impact on under-twos

Results from the Pfizer-BioNTech three-dose COVID-19 vaccine trial for this cohort are expected in early April. But for now, as the world begins to open for some, parents of under-fives still face difficult decisions regarding what their unvaccinated kids can safely do.

Amanda Jolly, who lives in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, decided not to vaccinate her immediate family and wanted to keep life as normal as possible for her son Sage, who is now in kindergarten. “We haven't kept him away from anything,” she says.

Other families have chosen stricter precautions. Lindsey and Brett Dobin’s first child, Brody, was born in November 2019, just before the pandemic hit. Soon after, his mother was laid off from her job. When schools closed in New York City, where Brett Dobin serves as a guidance counselor, he worked from home. Concerned about keeping their son safe, “We just avoided the world,” Lindsey Dobin says.

But when she went back to work in January 2022, they had no choice but to put Brody in daycare. While she’s happy he’s socializing and learning, she says, “every night I go to sleep hoping he didn't get sick today. It's scary.”

Unless there are deficits in care or a stressful family environment, extra time at home may have benefitted the very young. For babies, caregivers are their whole world, and their greatest need is responsive, sensitive care. “There's really no indication that their social development is going to be impacted at all,” says Seth Pollak, a psychologist and brain scientist who studies child development at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“Until around age two, kids don't really play with other kids,” he says. They engage in what psychologists call parallel play, sitting in proximity, often with similar toys, but playing independently. By age three, play becomes more imaginative, and most kids crave time with friends.

Fred Rogers, better known as Mister Rogers, noted that “play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning.”

Serious cognitive development happens during interactive play, says Learmonth, while also offering social training. It’s where kids learn to negotiate, share, take turns, and not to grab things or hurt other people’s feelings. It teaches them that games have rules, and they can't always win or have their way— or nobody will want to play with them, Learmonth adds.

Promising signs

One peer-reviewed study showed promising outcomes for children from six to 36 months old. A team of pediatric nurse practitioners evaluated them to see if they were meeting developmental milestones. They examined motor skills, how kids respond to strangers, progress in mirroring a smile, their speech and vocabulary, problem solving skills and other milestone abilities.

“Our findings were generally reassuring,” says co-author Bernadette Sobczak. The researchers found no differences in social development. “But in the six-month and the 12-month-old groups, there was just a very slight difference in communication compared with those evaluated pre-pandemic.”

Now, with nearly two years of limited opportunities for social interaction, some deficits are appearing in slightly older children, those now three to six years old. Anna Johnson, a developmental psychologist and associate professor at Georgetown University, notes that there's clearly disrupted social development—and developmental delays—in some kids.

In pre-pandemic times, routine well-child checkups may have diagnosed some deficits. But many of those appointments were delayed amidst lockdowns and fears of contagion. “A lot of referrals happen between 18 months and age four,” Johnson says. “I worry about kids who might have had a minor language delay that a year of early intervention would correct. What happens when they don't get that?”

We know that children who have adverse childhood experiences may develop long-term problems. High levels of stress or adversity can impact brain development, altering cognitive and social-emotional development, affecting decision-making, learning, and memory. Stressed parents have less bandwidth—and less patience, says Cathi Propper, a research scientist at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies child development.

The pandemic has created extraordinary circumstances. Many of those entering kindergarten with developmental or social issues have challenging backgrounds. They come from unstable, insecure homes where there’s been too much screen time and not enough one-on-one attention or stimulating activities that are critical for healthy development, Pollak says.

But there are caveats. Since resilience is built on relationships, connection with just one parent, grandparent, or other consistent, caring adult can provide a solid platform for social development. And not all screen time is equal. Certain high-quality programs have educational benefits. Watching these shows can nurture language skills and help prepare children for school.

Understanding the scope of this generation’s trajectory will take time, in part because the pandemic slowed child development research. In the few in-person studies done during this period, researchers were garbed in masks, face shields and other protective gear, which skews results with little kids because they’re just learning language and facial cues. For other projects, the research was done with online questionnaires filled out by parents, but without professional assessment of their children.

That means, NICHD’s Griffin says, “we don't have good research data yet.”

Issues for three- to five-year-olds

For now, schools remain the best resource for families, with teachers on the front line. Amanda Jolly teaches first grade in Oklahoma’s small, rural Pauls Valley district. With shutdowns and quarantines in 2020 and 2021, “we pretty much missed a year of school,” she says.

She lists a litany of issues she’s seeing in her students and her son Sage’s kindergarten classmates—kids that were three, four, and five when the pandemic hit.

“It’s taken a lot longer this year for them to get comfortable. They don't know how to act around other children. It's harder to hold their attention. They can't sit through a lesson. They can't solve problems or do a lot of things for themselves.” While some of this behavior is normal, especially for kindergartners, there seems to be more of it, Jolly says.

The kids are also “a lot more huggy,” Jolly says. “They want more affirmation, and they're afraid to make mistakes.”

The overall emotional toll of these two hard years is evident. “I've had kids who have lost loved ones. They're just sad ... and we deal with a lot more angry children.”

The economic downturn and widening inequity are also obvious. “We see a lot more kids this year that are hungry,” Jolly says, “a lot more kids that are not as clean.”

Schools act as a stabilizing force in the lives of struggling families, anchoring communities. They provide meals, mental health services, some on-site health services, and connect families with resources, Georgetown’s Anna Johnson says. Closures left a big gap. To get kids back on track, mental health and special needs services need to be a priority. That requires adequate funding.

It seems that going forward, teachers need to be prepared for incoming kindergarteners that have a wider range of needs than before. “Some kids have literally never sat down in a chair, next to another little body and been told to do something with a writing tool in their hand. Others have been doing that all along. Some kids aren't used to the noise, have never been in a routine or shared an object,” Johnson says.

Griffin describes that kindergarten year as “boot camp for school.” By June, kids can sit at a desk, stand in line, follow directions, and not speak out of turn. Students who haven’t developed these skills by first grade, Griffin says, are at risk for early school failure.

The families clinging to the bottom rungs of the societal ladder will need the most help. Learmonth isn’t as confident that those children—or other special needs kids—will have access to the services needed to recover well.

A generally positive outlook

The good news is that most young children will be okay. Young humans are flexible, equipped with brains that have great “plasticity”—the ability to adapt.

Personality is relatively stable. It's unlikely that the pandemic would squash an extrovert or create an introvert, though it could alter an individual’s trajectory. “We're not creating misanthropes where there would have been socially successful humans,” Johnson says.

Pollak concurs. “I think that the children are mostly going to be fine ... provided that we can put the right supports in place.”

For these and other reasons, experts agree that while “bunker babies” may be a little immature, most will catch up once they get the chance to flex their social muscles. Since everyone is struggling, the question arises: If they’re all behind, is anyone really behind?

As the pandemic continues to evolve and we move from the pandemic phase to the endemic phase, kids from all backgrounds will react—even as things improve. Children don't like change, Pollak says. “They love stability.” Any shift in routine could trigger sleep problems or tantrums for weeks until kids settle into the new normal.

When Lindsey Dobin began taking her son Brody to daycare at the beginning of this year, she says, “he screamed bloody murder for the first three weeks. It was gut wrenching to see him so upset.” Now, six weeks in, he no longer cries.

Winnie’s dad, Nick Ruggia, says they want her to have a more normal childhood as soon as that's a realistic possibility. They’ll be enrolling her in pre-K once she’s vaccinated.

In the meantime, they’ll play games, read, draw, and go to outdoor places where they feel safe, whether it is unmasked outdoors at the zoo, or masked indoors at a museum.

Maybe our kids will be more flexible because they've had this unusual experience. “We hope it gives them a more profound appreciation for being with people you love,” says Mike John, though “we wonder if they will grow up with this sense of dread that the entire world can be imperiled and locked indoors at any moment.”

Griffin calls humans “by far the most successful invasive species the Earth has ever known.” He adds that “we've been through wars, plagues, natural disasters. As a species we are amazingly resilient.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated with expected dates for the Pfizer-BioNTech three-dose vaccine trial results. 
Editor's Note: This story originally misspelled the name of the Luna’s father. It is Mike John.

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