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Children of Quarantine What does a year of isolation and anxiety do to a developing brain?

Photo by Gabby K from Pexels

The kids who are suffering the most in this pandemic are the kids who were already suffering most.

“I’m concerned most about children who don’t have an adult who’s thinking about them and doing what needs to be done,” said Ann Masten, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota who studies resilience in kids. “I worry about kids who are isolated. Or children who are now at home in a dangerous situation. They’re hidden. The kids we used to monitor — we don’t see them anymore. Or they’re homeless, moving around. We don’t encounter them, and they’re suffering in quiet silence. Isolation is a necessity right now, but some children are much more isolated than others. That really worries me.”

An inability to pay the bills leads directly to anxiety and depression in adults, and the anxiety and depression of parents leads, within two or three weeks, to mental-health problems in children. Fisher was able to measure this chain reaction. The more difficulty parents reported paying the bills one week, the more emotional distress they reported the following week. The more distress these parents said they were in, the more distress they observed in their children the week after that. A recent paper from Harvard corroborated the finding: In the pandemic, the mental health of children is “significantly correlated” to that of their parents.

As of October more than 2 million women have dropped out of the workforce, many for good. The number of women working has fallen to the lowest level since 1988. In one sense, these women are solving a practical problem: Nine months since the country’s schools shut down, nearly 60 percent of American kids are still learning entirely online and someone needs to look after them. Women flooded the workplace over the past 30 years, but as they did, no one — not employers, governments, or, for the most part, spouses — picked up in any meaningful or systemic way the main job they left behind: the day-to-day business of caring for children. “Other countries have social safety nets. The U.S. has women,” the sociologist Jessica Calarco recently said.

Spring will come. There will be teachers again with eyes on kids and in-person social workers and doctors and librarians. They will help do the job of paying attention, of answering questions. There will be a vaccine. This period, like a war, will end.

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