Parents, Kids and Social Distance

During these homebound days of shelter-in-place we’ve heard, read and experienced quite a lot about what that’s like for parents suddenly sequestered full time with children. Parents have been confronted not only with the physical care of children but also have had to fill in as teachers and social replacements. There actually may be less social distance than we might like.

But what is it like for children shut in with parents? A major area of development that one might guess would be affected is that of the ongoing struggle between dependence and independence. The march from dependence to independence, which always seems to involve two steps forward and one step back, may seem in fallback mode. Why does that happen?

Even as an adult, there are benefits – even pleasures – to be derived from dependence. And we are light years away from having been taken care of. For children, who are just emerging from the state of having all their needs met, and for whom the conflict between dependence and independence is an ongoing challenge, it is easy to sink back to an earlier time.

The conflict around dependence and independence continues in some form throughout life. For children, it emerges as part of developing new skills, both physical and cognitive. It is a real high to discover you can climb up and reach the cookies, or run and jump, or figure out how to do a new puzzle.

Along with the new skills comes a push for autonomy. As masters of the universe it seems they should decide for themselves whether it is bedtime, or a cookie before lunch. Developing language provides the word “no!”, which children often use even when they really mean yes. It seems as though everything is about asserting independence.

But the conflict comes because in reality children are still dependent on their parents. Pushing them away creates some anxiety about the possible loss of the caregiving that is still needed. The memory of not being expected to do some of the things that are less pleasant about growing up is still fresh enough to want to regain them in some situations. We all enjoy being cared for from time to time. For children, other stressors such as the present pandemic can bring with them anxiety and the need for old comforts.

But what is this like for teen-agers who are at a stage of major assertions of independence, now cooped up at home and having to deal with parents? Checking in with a teen-age informant gave some interesting feedback. This young person thought that in general it was hard to be home and deal with your parents. She was surprised that she has not been more “fed up” with her parents.

Her explanation is that it is easier to deal with them now than when she is also at school because she is less stressed out now. Other people regress and it’s like, “Oh I’m back in this house.” One friend has an older sister living back at home now and the resentment is hard for both of them. Parents try to set a schedule because they don’t know what else to do and want to keep them on a schedule.

She observed that some people find it hard to be alone by themselves and rely on social interaction for comfort and validation from other people. She has now come to see that some of that social interaction is just a way of doing something and has come to recognize and appreciate what a meaningful interaction is. She has concluded that one has to be able to “be by myself, be with yourself.”

It may be that social distancing requires an ability to be with yourself, by yourself, as well as tolerating too much togetherness.