Kids are losing their childhood to the coronavirus pandemic. This is what it feels like for them.

There are few things more depressing than constantly reminding a young child that she must stay six feet away from a friend she meets on the street during a neighborhood shelter-in-place walk. 

We’re trying to keep everyone healthy, you say. 

From the coronavirus, she responds. 

She’s already learned to stop asking if she can hug anyone outside her immediate family. Then she begs to inch closer to the friend and you wince while saying no. 

COVID-19, the official term for the disease caused by the deadly virus, has upended life everywhere, but for millions of children and teens it’s a particularly startling change of course. Experiences essential to their growth and development — things we took for granted just a few weeks ago — are now off-limits as we bet on extreme social distancing to beat back a disease that’s swiftly killed tens of thousands around the globe and thousands in the U.S.

Now, there are no hugs from grandparents, smiles from a favorite teacher, encouraging words from a coach, group hangs, playdates, or romantic dates. Connections are made virtually and digitally, and while Zoom calls with classmates or friends might cheer up a bored 5-year-old or sullen 15-year-old, they cannot replace the warmth and immediacy of seeing someone in real life. 

Instead, children are stuck with their parents or primary caregiver, along with immediate household family members. Those parents may be trying to hold down a full-time job while telecommuting or risking daily exposure because they’re an essential worker. They’re probably also stressed and anxious, especially if rent is due, cabinets are bare, and their income just plummeted to zero. President Trump extended social distancing guidelines through the end of April, but that’s certainly pending a successful containment of the pandemic. For millions of school-age children, there’s no guaranteed end to their isolation in sight. 

Research holds few, if any answers, about how long-term social distancing might affect children’s well-being and development. We know some are likely to experience stress and anxiety. Children with disabilities could face intellectual or social setbacks outside of their school environment, without the support services they receive there. The worst-case scenarios include an uptick in domestic violence and child abuse. In the best-case scenarios, families get closer and find ways to work together. 

Youth already struggling with mental health issues may find it difficult to thrive without their normal routine and in-person support from friends and other loving adults. In general, adolescents currently experience high rates of anxiety and depression, and they’re poised to spend even more time on social media, a habit that’s been associated with poor mental health in young people. 

Despite these known or expected possibilities, this is uncharted territory in the U.S. Slavery, war, and immigration policy have separated children from their families or limited their social circles, but we’ve never abruptly torn millions of kids from their daily lives and cut off physical contact with anyone but those who live in their household.

“This is a really sudden and difficult change for them, because it’s not the same to see your peers through a video chat or a Zoom meeting.”

For the youngest children, this can mean losing critical sensory and physical experiences, like touching and hugging, pinging around the playground, and imaginary play. Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral pediatrician and an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan, says those exchanges are how kids calibrate their social skills and regulate their emotions. They thrive on real-time feedback from peers and can’t get that in a social vacuum. 

“When it comes to kids, they are such sensory beings. They live with their whole bodies,” says Radesky. “This is a really sudden and difficult change for them, because it’s not the same to see your peers through a video chat or a Zoom meeting.”

Instead, they crave the chance to express what’s bubbling up in their imagination in a way that makes sense to another 7-year-old. So if a child is desperately goofy or playful, it’s important to respond in kind. They may also want to demonstrate mastery over something to their parents, like reading, using the bathroom, or doing a chore. Every day at school they take advantage of opportunities to show they’re in control. They need the same at home, too, and that urge might look familiar to parents who are coping with coronavirus stress by doing crosswords, puzzles, or gardening. Performing tasks we’re good at bring people — no matter their age — a deep sense of satisfaction. 

Meanwhile, children’s caregivers remain a vitally important emotional compass, says Radesky. Their job is to demonstrate coping skills and help children make meaning out of this unprecedented moment. 

We have the power to create a safe home environment so that you and your family can manage uncertainty in a healthy and productive way!

— Child Mind Institute (@ChildMindInst) March 29, 2020

This isn’t what you thought childhood would look like for your baby, but a simple message to share with them is that by closely following the social distancing guidelines, we can ward off illness and save lives. And even if their childhood now may look temporarily frightening, parents can reassure kids by creating as calm an environment as possible at home. Parents can also acknowledge stress and then talk about ways to deal with it, like through deep breaths, mindfulness, and laughter. 

Those same things hold true for adolescents and teenagers, but they’re missing out on something entirely different than the elementary school set. Jill Emanuele, senior director of the Mood Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute, says teens should be rehearsing for adulthood by establishing independence from their parents. They need to form different relationships outside of their family and negotiate different social situations through trial and error. Instead, they’re suddenly — and indefinitely — under the same roof as their parents. Emanuele says teens need to continue finding safe, appropriate ways to rehearse for adulthood. 

That might look like striking out on their own for neighborhood walks without their phones, as some teens have done. They can nurture relationships digitally, taking care not to spend so much time on a device to the exclusion of everything else. A predictable routine for schoolwork, exercise, and family time is also important — and so is alone time. Teens should ask for solo time and parents should grant reasonable requests, particularly because teaching older children to assert themselves is key to their development. 

“There will be people who can’t handle this, so we need to play our part.” 

Emanuele says that while we cannot predict how the pandemic will affect children long-term, it does present a “great opportunity to teach them coping skills, how to sit with emotions, and learn to be able to manage difficult times.” 

What keeps her up at night, however, are the parents who haven’t yet learned their own productive coping skills and can’t yet model that behavior for their children, or endure such harrowing times that they cannot demonstrate their own resilience. Her only solution to that problem is to urge people to check in on their families to share resources and support. 

“There will be people who can’t handle this,” she says, “so we need to play our part.” 

This pandemic threatens to rob many kids of their childhood for weeks or months to come. For some, the disruption will be relatively safe and last as long as social distancing guidelines remain in place. Other children will have traumatic experiences that fundamentally change their lives. The best parents and caregivers can do is to see the world through their eyes and have compassion for what those children have lost.    

This content was originally published here.