As Ashlyn Atigre prepared to take her healthy son to the pediatrician for his 3-year-old well visit recently, a nagging concern was on her mind.
“I want to talk about the social impact of the pandemic with the doctor,” said the Tampa, Florida, mother. “I’m an introvert but clearly need people. And I’m seeing his shyness increase and wondering if it’s Covid, if I’m just seeing my genes or if it’s because he’s almost three and at a new (stage) in life.”
The family has been social distancing from friends and relatives since taking their son out of day care back in March, said Atigre, 36, whose husband is a doctor and works in several local hospitals. (While they’re taking all precautions at work and home, that’s where they could potentially be exposed to the virus, said Atigre.)
For months, she said, they’ve only really interacted closely with one set of neighbors who have a child slightly younger than her son in a shared social “bubble.”
“I have worried if he is learning emotions and empathy just being here with me,” she said, as well as interpersonal skills like taking turns, sharing and learning to handle situations he doesn’t like.
Fewer playdates with friends, caregivers in masks that hide their smiles at day care and too much Zoom and screen time during the pandemic — parents of toddlers are worried about more than green poop right now.
While these worries are valid, they’re unlikely to bear longtime consequences on normally developing toddlers, said Amy Learmonth, a professor of psychology at William Paterson University of New Jersey.
“Toddlers’ whole goal in life is to keep their caregiver close, which is why they do so many of the unattractive things they do,” Learmonth said. “So in some ways, the necessities of the pandemic have given them exactly what they want.”
The developmental task of toddlers — one of the age groups Learmonth said will best weather the pandemic — is to learn to be social beings. And that social development “can really happen in the family,” she said.
Kids love being engaged in keeping someone safe, so tell them “they can’t see Grandma because we’re going to keep her safe.”
“We need to make sure when we talk to them about how we’re not going to hug our neighbor — all these things we’re restricting them from doing — we need to be really clear that it’s because of the virus,” she said. And not that other people are scary.
The importance of play
The challenges of balancing working from home with toddler rearing are top of mind for many these days, including Karlee Vincent, a California Bay Area mother who says she has noticed behavioral changes in her 3-year-old daughter since taking her out of day care in March.
“My toddler has become a Velcro baby because of her need for a stronger emotional connection with me,” said the 33-year-old founder of Traveling Milk Truck. “She cries more frequently, pulls my arms away from the keyboard and begs me to stop working.”
Drawing a line between work and play may help.
“A preschooler’s job is to play,” said Scott D. McDaniel, a licensed professional counselor with Greater Rome Psychotherapy Services in Rome, Georgia.
His advice? “Really interact with your children, allow them to enlist you as a playmate and follow their lead. It is through play that they act out feelings and concerns, learn new skills and interact with others.”
Get away from screens and enter their pretend play world to get an idea of what kids are thinking, said clinical psychologist Robyn Koslowitz, director of the Targeted Parenting Institute and host of the “Post-Traumatic Parenting” podcast.
“I get it we’re all looking for stress relief on our phones during this pandemic, but honestly, the oxytocin that is released when we lay on the carpet and belly laugh with a toddler is healthier than ‘likes’ on Instagram or another round of Candy Crush,” she said.
And if your kid wants to play “pandemic” and you wonder if they’re scarred for life?
“He or she is just playing out what he’s seeing,” she said. “It’s so normal.”
Local resources can help
Experts advise turning to local resources that address childhood development — many of which have gone online during the pandemic — for help, if you can find them.
“Early intervention is magic — and in most states, it’s available,” Learmonth said.
Baby Bungalow — an early childhood learning and resource center run by Champions for Children in Tampa, Florida — currently offers 10 Zoom play groups weekly as well as “playground appointments” for family units to share time together in a safe outside environment, said Program Director Paula Wyne.
Designed for kids ages newborn to age 5, the nonprofit’s pandemic-spawned Zoom sessions “sometimes fly in the face of what we’re encouraging regarding being really play-based and about interaction — play being the foundation of learning from our perspective,” she said.
The online sessions, however, play an important role as “support for families in retaining that connection to services,” as well as helping to ensure that parents and caregivers have appropriate expectations of their children’s behavior.
“Toddlers have what they need at home to weather this,” Wyne said. “We’re keeping those connections, talking about the things that connect us to one another that one day we’ll be able to do again.”
Take time for yourself
Tapping into our own resilience during these times can also benefit your children and make them more resilient, Koslowitz said.
“Toddlers take the world as they see it, they don’t know any different.”
“If we’re modeling resilience, they will learn it. Can we manage our own big emotions? Do we do the commonsense things we need to do to keep ourselves resilient?”
“Do what you need to do to make yourself present,” she said.
The kids are going to be all right, Learmonth said.
“Toddlers are one of the age groups I worry about the least, but the parents are one I worry about the most,” she said.
“It’s not helpful for us to be so worried about this. Toddlers are incredibly good at reading our signals.”
And if you’re worried that some of those signals are hidden behind masks by masked caregivers at day care (and other faces usually out in the open in non-pandemic times), that, too, she said, will pass.
Get CNN Health's weekly newsletter
Sign up here to get The Results Are In with Dr. Sanjay Gupta every Tuesday from the CNN Health team.
If toddlers don’t see lips moving all day, just make time to talk to them when they come home from day care as normal, Learmonth said.
“For most kids who are typically developing and not having difficulties in general, this will be a blip.”
Terry Ward is freelance writer based in Tampa, Florida.