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My Biggest Coronavirus Fear Is My Kid's Mental Health

As daycare and activities are shut down, my exuberant 4-year-old has become moody and anxious. And the crisis hasn't even really hit yet.

by Nathan Munn
Mar 23 2020, 3:10pm

Illustration by Hunter French

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

“Why is daycare closed, Dad?”

My four-and-a-half year old daughter asked the question over breakfast, prompting a quick and silent consultation between my wife and I: How to respond, in how much detail? My wife answered with a brief and reassuring “It’s because of the flu, honey.”

That bought us a little time. We had already explained to her some days before that there was a flu going around, after she wondered aloud why we were suddenly washing our hands so often and why we admonished her not to touch anything when we went to the grocery store.

But after her daycare shut down—and after the library and local pool were closed indefinitely, and her karate classes canceled—our simple answers were starting to feel inadequate. Not just because 4-year-olds are smart, and can pick up on anxiety and tension with startling accuracy, but because our normally exuberant and mostly-carefree kid was starting to show worrying signs of absorbing that anxiety herself, a reality that is heartbreaking to witness as a parent.

From our suburb north of Montreal, my wife and I had kept a wary eye on the news as the first cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in Quebec. First there were a couple, then a few more. As we watched the crisis unfolding in Italy, we started preparing before Quebec’s numbers grew into the double digits, now at 219 confirmed at the time of writing.

We bought some hand sanitizer and started quietly stocking up on essentials (spending an extra hundred bucks at the grocery store isn’t hoarding when you’re a family of four.) As news started to come out about clusters of coronavirus cases elsewhere in Canada and the U.S., specifically in New York, we pulled our daughter out of daycare, three days before Quebec ordered all schools and childcare spaces shut. We were a little ahead of the curve and extremely fortunate: I was able to keep working from home full-time, and myself, my wife, our daughter, and our 1-year-old son settled into our little bubble, wondering what would come next.

At the outset of the pandemic, our main concerns were avoiding infection (still high on the list) and figuring out how we would keep ourselves sane and occupied during our time at home. But it was on the fourth or fifth day of self-imposed isolation that our normally bubbly little girl woke up irritable and dark-eyed.

As we sat down for breakfast—our 1-year-old happily screeching, oblivious to all except his fistfuls of oatmeal—I noticed our daughter staring a hole into her bowl, her head propped up on one hand like an irate teenager. She looked sad and upset. I hate to say the words even now, but she—a sweet little girl, with a rainbow on her shirt and a pink ribbon in her ponytail—looked sad.

I immediately tried to cheer her up with the prospect of a walk to the park, followed by a half-hour of Paw Patrol. At the mention of her favorite show she perked up, but it didn’t last long: After watching TV, she broke down into tears and yelled at my wife and I as we tried to move the slow-as-molasses day along.

“I want to be alone! Nobody talk to me!” She stomped her little foot into the ground, and clenched her fists. My wife and I shared a worried glance as she stormed into her room and slammed the door.

Later, she sat curled up in my lap, toying with her striped socks, as I gently tried to talk with her.

“I know it’s a bit tough when we’re all stuck in the house, isn’t it? And when you don’t get to see your friends at daycare,” I ventured carefully, trying not to plant thoughts in her head.

She got up and guided me to a poster of “Emotions” on her wall, and pointed at the faces for “sad” and “angry.” Then she sat down again, bummed.

“I miss Eloise,” she mumbled—her best friend from daycare.

“I know you do, Snuggle Bear,” I said, cuddling her close. “Don’t worry, you’ll get to see her again.”

But I couldn’t say when. Because I don’t know.

Specialists in child development say that change of any kind is difficult for little kids. When routines get disrupted, kids get confused and upset. They often express these feelings through disruptive behavior, which only makes things more difficult as a parent: Having to simultaneously console, entertain and discipline a sad and pissed-off 4-year-old is challenging to say the least—especially when you’re trying to work, maintain a healthy relationship with your spouse and stay calm during a pandemic.

There has been some helpful advice published recently to help guide parents on how to communicate with their kids during this crisis. Experts and seasoned child-rearers say that as parents, the best we can do is keep our conversations with our kids simple, keep what we tell them age-appropriate, and most importantly keep our cool as we grown-ups watch the numbers tick higher, the list of closures grow longer, and hear the din of our own worries grow louder as we are carried down a swollen river of uncertainty toward an unknown future.

For now, we’re doing good. We’re healthy and we’re deeply thankful for that. We have food, power, water, Skype. We’ve got each other. Our daughter has an hour of TV per day to allow her a little escape from our stressful new reality, and our daily walks in our ghost-town suburban streets and our morning exercise routines are keeping us positive.

But every time I check the news, I can’t shake the nagging feeling that something bigger has been lost during this pandemic. Perhaps what’s been lost is just the (naive?) idea that the future is always welcoming, warm, and bright. I know I used to feel that way, but that feeling seems far away now.

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