Nothing fuels anxiety over only children quite like a pandemic. If you’re a worried parent of “just” one kid right now, you’ll find no shortage of articles asking if the “onelings” are all right. But here’s some much-needed reassurance: Kids without siblings are no more vulnerable to the repercussions of this crisis than their peers with brothers and sisters. And, on the flipside, they may even be better equipped to weather the isolation. “One of the gifts of growing up as an only child is learning how to keep oneself good company when alone,” says psychologist Carl Pickhardt, PhD, author of The Future of Your Only Child. “They are often better prepared to happily operate when physical distancing is imposed. Time with themselves, by themselves is not boring or lonely. They know how to make solitude satisfying and enriching.” We spoke with parents of only children and the psychologists who study them, to find out how they’re coping, now that childhood as we know it is being upended. They offer lessons all families can learn about how to support kids—because these days, in one way or another, everyone is going it alone.
Lessons in Pandemic Parenting: 4 Ways to Help Only Children Feel Connected
Consult the New Rules of Screen Time (JK, There Are No Rules)
We may have spent years following AAP guidelines and vigilantly curtailing screen use, especially for young children. But every psychologist and parent we spoke with agrees that when it comes to socializing online, the old rules no longer apply. “My 11-year-old daughter has become an expert at texting and FaceTime-ing with friends and grandparents,” says author Barbara Basbanes, who lives in New York. “Initially, I was concerned she would feel lost without daily interaction with her friends and that the school system wouldn't be able to keep her engaged academically. Fortunately, I have been proven wrong.” Another New York-area mom, Michelle*, has seen her six-year- old become tech-savvy beyond her years: “My daughter is pretty social, so she's definitely missing school and her friends right now. She isn't super into independent play or reading, so the result is that unless she's watching TV, she wants to be attached to us 24/7. That's not so different from how it was pre-pandemic, but now there are so many more hours in the day to deal with this. She goes to bed crazy late, too—we've given up—so again: So. Many. Hours.” What's helped? “I'm a little embarrassed to admit this, because again, she's six. But I gave her my old cellphone and set her up on Facebook Messenger for Kids, which allows me to approve her contacts. She now schedules several video chats every day on her own, and balks when I ask her who she's talking to. So she's basically a teenager”
And yet, according to Social Psychologist Susan Newman, PhD, author of The Case for the Only Child, this might actually be a good thing. “This is a time that parents need to relax their rules about limiting social media. Ease up so that your child can feel connected to the outer world and their friends. Friends are critical for kids.” This goes for all children, whether they have siblings or not. “There’s this fallacy that only children are lonely,” adds Dr. Newman. “Once they are old enough to be connected online, only children have just as many friends as other kids. Being an only child with those technological tools at hand is a great boon.” What hasn’t changed? It remains a parent’s job to help kids safely and responsibly navigate life online (Yes, even in first grade).
Promote Alone Time
Once her 8-year-old daughter finishes her schoolwork, a new set of worries sets in for Trisha Patterson, a Media Sales executive, also in the New York area. For the four-to-five afternoon hours until dinner, “There is an innate, non-stop guilt, where if she's not occupied with something other than TV/YouTube, my anxiety ratchets up and I then become something like a cruise director, planning activities. Which sounds nice, if not for the ancillary stress that bubbles up from not getting my own work done.” It may help to learn that, according to Dr. Newman, “Often it’s the parents of only children who are projecting their concern and worry onto their child, who may be just fine being by herself.” Whether you have one kid or five, Dr. Pickhardt says that the goal for all parents should be “to help distanced children learn to entertain themselves by themselves.” And while, generally speaking, this is where only children have an edge, “alone time is a positive for all children,” says Dr. Newman. “It is time for them to be creative. They come up with imaginative play. They learn how to fill their time. Downtime is not terrible. Doing nothing is not so awful. You get to think!” And mom—just maybe—gets to shower.
Find New Ways to Play
For Patterson’s daughter, seven weeks into quarantine, video chats are losing their luster. All the Zooming and FaceTime-ing is starting “to feel too much like schoolwork to her…She seems a little ambivalent.” Chris*, also a father to an 8-year-old daughter, has spearheaded efforts to transform her real-life extra-curricular activities into virtual ones. He’s e-mailed reusable Bingo cards to the members of her after-school Bingo club, which now convenes online. He also facilitates virtual yoga, Zoom dance-offs and doll fashion shows with her cousins. Still, to strike a balance, he’s had to limit her access to the online libraries and reading apps she’s deluged with from school. “We’ve tended to encourage hard copy books, as extended screen time does not a pleasant child make post screen-time!”
Limit the News
“What makes only children particularly vulnerable during this crisis? Well, all kids are vulnerable,” says Dr. Newman. “But people get hung up in thinking that only children are different and because they are alone, they will be more isolated than other children. All children are struggling with this, whether they have siblings or not.” Indeed, the concerns and stresses parents of “singletons” are facing mirror those of any other parent. We are all stumbling in the dark toward a new normal. What helps only children will also help those from bigger families. “As time has progressed, we have learned to limit the news—TV and radio—as it has tended to create some anxiety at bedtime,” says Chris. “Lots of ‘What if?’ questions about the possibility of family and friends getting Covid-19. But our daughter has responded well to open conversations and the overall anxiety has lessened. She is a well-adjusted kid and has done amazingly well through this confinement, despite being an only child.” And again, maybe because she is one.
*Names have been changed at the request of parents.