By Lisa Miller
Starting on April 6, a bearded and earnest neuroscientist at the University of Oregon named Philip Fisher began to send a digital questionnaire — at first weekly, and then, beginning in August, biweekly — to a representative group of a thousand American families with young children. He’s curious about how they and their kids are doing. They aren’t doing so well.
At first, writing into blank spaces on the questionnaire as if they were diaries, parents conveyed a fresh sense of surprise at their new reality. They observed their kids’ sudden regressions and general nervousness as novelties. Toilet-trained children were wetting their beds, and kids who once went to sleep easily became hard to soothe, waking at night or crawling in with their parents. “My son is suddenly scared of everything,” one Ohio parent wrote in the first week of June. An Arizona parent corroborated: “Our 2-year-old has had a very sudden increase in separation anxiety. She doesn’t like it when we leave the room, and at night she takes a long time to fall asleep because she doesn’t want us to go.”
By summer, the cabin fever and separation from friends, as well as the disruption of routine, were taking a toll. At week 12, 79 percent of parents of kids under 5 said their children were more fussy and defiant than before, and 41 percent of their children were more fearful or anxious. Harried parents reported frequent tantrums and incessant, escalating sibling fights. One young boy in New York mourned the loss of his day care, shuttered for more than two months, and chanted the name of each child in his class every night in an incantation of grief. Just after the Fourth of July, a mother in Missouri noted that her daughter had gotten more demanding, wanting extra attention especially when she was on video calls. That same week, a young mother in Pennsylvania worried that four months of isolation had been “devastating” to her daughter’s mental health. “She really needs to get back in counseling, but we’re concerned about exposure.”