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8 April 2020

Social distancing is hard for everyone – especially a seven-year-old

My son doesn’t want to make conversation, he wants to play. Cutting off physical social contact is especially difficult for him, and for all young children.

By Alice O'Keeffe

It’s a sunny morning, and seven-year-old Moe and I are at the allotment, which has been designated a safe space for daily exercise (so far). We got the allotment a year ago and almost gave it up before the virus hit, as we were too busy working and socialising to look after it. With all of those distractions done away with, we are now in danger of spending so much time here that we run out of things to do. We’ve already dug three beds, planted asparagus, garlic, peas and beans. Short of taking up topiary I’m not sure how to string this out for what now looks like six months of lockdown.

Moe doesn’t want to help today, though. He’s gone very quiet. He is lying on top of our toolbox, unmoving. This is very uncharacteristic. From the moment Moe gets out of bed in the morning to the moment he drops like a stone into bed at night, he’s always bouncing – full of zany energy. Thus far, my kids have been remarkably chipper since the schools shut, but this feels different.

 “Are you okay, pops?” I ask. He just lies there. There’s no need for him to answer; I know what’s up. He’s bored, he’s feeling down. He’s missing his friends, his school, his weekly activities, and his routine. I can text and Skype my mates if I need a chat. As Moe is only seven, Skype is no good to him. He doesn’t want to make conversation, he wants to play. Cutting off physical social contact is, for him and all young children, a sentence of complete isolation.

As all those clever programmers for tech companies know, humans are social animals. For children in particular, social contact is a fundamental need, like food and exercise. At the moment – although I’m aware that this may not last – the impact of isolation feels so much more threatening and real to me than the virus. And we are the lucky ones: what about all those families stuck in flats, having to use lifts and stairwells and home ventilation systems shared by dozens of others, with little access to outdoor space? How must they feel about the coming six months?

I take Moe in my arms, and try to hide the tears gathering in my eyes.

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“Things are a bit strange at the moment, but we’ll get through it. Why don’t you get up and help me dig? Keep going. It’ll help you to feel better.”

But he doesn’t want to. He lies down again.

I wonder if the policy-makers who have imposed social distancing have any idea what the long-term psychological impact these measures will have on children. On the one hand, perhaps it will do them good to get off the frantic merry-go-round of school and activities, to spend a bit more time staring into space. I certainly did a lot of that as a kid, back in the Eighties. On the other, two friends with teenagers told me this week that their kids had self-harmed since lockdown began. Another psychiatrist friend who works with women with postnatal depression has seen her clients cut off from their support networks, with no access to baby groups, services, or even their own extended families.

I see parents of babies and toddlers sitting on their own in the park, nobody to talk to, nobody to share their hard day with, and I remember how social contact was the only thing that kept me sane during those years. In Italy, perhaps we would sing to each other, but that kind of exuberance does not come naturally to us English. Chatting from a distance is awkward, and everyone is scared of breaking the rules, making things worse, being told off and shamed. People are always quick to judge parents; now more than ever.

Only a bunch of men, I tell myself bitterly, could have come up with social distancing as a policy. Our leaders failed to test, contact-trace and quarantine the early cases, and allowed the virus to spread out of control. And now they tell us that even tougher measures may be on their way.  

But there is no point using up precious energy questioning, criticising or worrying about the future. We are where we are, and we must make the best of it, for ourselves and our kids. Keep going, it’ll help you to feel better. I wipe my eyes, pick up the spade and dig.