As a toddler during World War II, playing in our comfy living room in Detroit, I was unaware of the fear and anxiety that permeated the adult life around me. Not just the threat of war possibly arriving at our shore, but the knowledge that my parent’s families in France were possibly subject to the horrors of the holocaust. And word of their fate, their actual status, was unavailing.
When the news came home, after the war had ended, both parents were devastated, my mother especially. She had saved up during the depression years to bring her parents to live in the U.S. They came for a year in 1938, but, unable to speak English and missing their younger children, they returned to Paris in 1939. Paris fell to the Nazis in 1940. Then, on a hot July day in 1942, the French police, eager to please their Nazi overlords, undertook the mass arrest of Jews in the infamous Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup. Among those 12,000 were my mother’s parents and two of her sisters, ultimately sent to be murdered at Auschwitz. That news devastated my mother.
I cannot measure the effect of living as a child through those tense and grievous early years. Perhaps it’s one reason I ultimately became a psychiatrist. I know I had an especially keen sense of empathy for the suffering of my patients. But I also retained the kind of clinical objectivity that perhaps replicates a child’s eye-view of adults in despair: closely observed and felt, but yet socially distant.
Now, locked in self-quarantine with their parents and with no live interaction with peers, children are subject to the pressured environment around them. The major impact originates from two perspectives: one is the emotional temperature of the caretakers, principally parents, and other co-inhabitants. The stress that the adults (and older siblings) experience inevitably impacts children, the way they witness and observe and experience the behavioral tone in the home.
A second impact derives from the way parents and others directly interact with children. Isolation with children at home continually day in and day out creates issues about relating to and tolerating children who are also unused to extended contact with parents. Discipline and caretaking become redefined merely by force of the conditions of constant contact.
Children are as adversely affected by the social containment forced on them as are the older family members. And children’s tendency to react to conditions forced upon them is not seasoned and reasoned by the rationales available to adults.
“[T]he mounting effect of stress on children may result in problems in adaptability on a scale we have never seen before”
Fear and anxiety are emotionally contagious. Groups of people are genetically programmed to spread anxiety and panic under massed conditions. Social isolation, though tempered by the reduced number and familiarity, is none-the-less a condition where mood is readily caught and embedded, transferred between each other. Empathy, so much a human trait, when paired with the brain’s flight-or-fight reactivity can overwhelm even the most mature and affectively restrained person.
The coronavirus crisis is a stark example of rapidly spreading panic, exemplified by the enormous surge toward stocking toilet paper. The problem for children is that their capacity to self-soothe and to temper emotional flare-ups is not fully or adequately developed. Children react intensely. Nor can they accurately delimit or correctly interpret the emotional messages coming at them from the adults in the room.
The problem is further extended by the neural plasticity that allows for adaptation to new conditions as well as acquiring new adaptive patterns. Living under stressful conditions affects the neural development of the brains of children and creates adverse patterns of brain-based behavior, mood and social interaction. Stress, experienced directly or vicariously, can reset multiple neural pathways in the developing child’s brain.
With the likelihood that the coronavirus crisis will force sustained social isolation, the mounting effect of stress on children may result in problems in adaptability on a scale we have never seen before.
This, of course, necessitates that parents and intimate caretakers of children are tasked with the need to contain their own emotional lability and to develop methods to assuage the effects of stress on their children.
We are living in an endangered new world, not one only threatened by the mounting effects of climate change, the extinction of critical animal species, the uncertainty of politics, economics, and global relations, but under the siege of fear, anxiety, and endemic stress due to the coronavirus terror.
“Oh brave new world…”