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How the pandemic looks to a 3-year-old

Nightmares. Tantrums. Fear of killing Grandma. The coronavirus is taking a toll on some kids’ psyches.

Four-year-old twins Gianna and Jackie Calo played in their backyard.
Four-year-old twins Gianna and Jackie Calo played in their backyard.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

It sounds like the opening scene in a pandemic horror flick. But of course it’s real.

Just home from Market Basket, Cinzia Calo, a Methuen mother, walks into her kitchen and is charged by her young brood, hungry for treats.

“Stay back!!!” she cries.

Michael, her 5-year-old, reacts first. "The groceries have the coronavirus,” he yells, as his younger sisters screech and they all flee to the living room.

Suddenly alone, Calo, a former elementary school teacher and a photographer, talks to herself. “This can’t be healthy,” she says.

COVID-19 has largely spared young children from death and illness. But with no inch of life free from anxiety, precautions, and don’t-touch-that, and with school and most day care canceled, parents are worrying about a secondhand threat: the social and emotional toll on kids.

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The fear that children are missing out on childhood is so intense that in a recent survey, Massachusetts parents said they were more concerned about the loss of important developmental opportunities — such as socialization and learning — than about contagion in child-care centers, according to Strategies for Children, a Boston advocacy organization.

Children who are too old to be oblivious, but too young to fully grasp the situation (as if anyone is old enough for that), are growing up in a world where — suddenly — they can’t play a cousins’ game of hide-and-seek at Grandma’s and Grandpa’s, enjoy a slide, pat a neighbor’s dog, share a toy, touch a fence, or sit on Mom’s lap at the library’s story time.

It’s early to measure the long-term impact on impressionable minds, but preliminary findings from a survey by researchers at Boston University show that the pandemic is working its way into children’s psyches.

Children are having nightmares and difficulty sleeping, throwing tantrums, and asking about death, said one of the researchers, Nermeen Dashoush, a clinical assistant professor of early childhood education. They are suffering from Zoom fatigue.

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Some kids who have been taught that they could unintentionally sicken their grandparents have internalized the message that they are the ones getting people sick.

“Some parents are reporting that children are blaming themselves,” Dashoush said. “They are crossing the street when they see an older person.”

In Athol, a 3-year-old thought he was home from family child care because he was doing something wrong — a misconception educator Kim Warrington learned during a Zoom call.

“I promise I will make good choices, Miss Kim, if I can just come back to school,” he told her. “I won’t give you the germs.”

Another child, 4-year-old Annika Lee, of North Reading, thinks she’s home alone because her friends don’t want to see her. “Does Ryan and Ryan’s mommy not want to have a play date?” she asked her mother, Amanda Hitchens Lee.

“You want your kids to be aware but not scared — to hold onto that innocence," Lee said. “But now she’s actively looking out for people who are coughing or look sick.”

In Medford, Margaret Snyad is also mourning the loss of innocence. Sadness stabbed when her 6-year-old, after being told he couldn’t go to the basketball court because other kids were already there, made his case. “What if I’m socially distant?" he countered.

That was several weeks ago, she said. “Now the 4-year-old is saying it, too."

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Many children exhibiting new and anxious behaviors haven’t suffered a personal loss. But with more than 6,800 deaths in Massachusetts, and the state’s jobless rate at 15.1 percent in April, there are a lot of children who are living with additional pain and struggle.

Perhaps nowhere is the new world facing children more clearly outlined than in the requirements for emergency child care programs issued by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and Department of Early Education and Care.

“Children should be kept 6 feet apart and frequently reminded not to touch their faces, hug, high-five, or have any other physical contact,” the health and safety protocols read. “Refrain from activities that encourage physical contact or close physical proximity, like tag or circle time."

Here’s what that looks like in practice at Kim’s Kid Kare FCC & Preschool in Athol, where, pre-pandemic, a gaggle of children used to work together in the pretend restaurant to make pretend steak and eggs and coffee. It’s now a solitary play station with hardly any food.

“Where are the tacos?” the confused children ask. “Where’s the frying pan?”

Without a vaccine or treatments, it’s crucial for parents to properly frame the crisis, said Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University who studies the development of early language and literacy and the role of play in learning.

Children who are worried that they’re the ones sickening older people, she said, should be taught that by wearing a mask or staying away from grandparents “you are part of the solution.”

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As the months at home mount with no end in sight, Megina Baker, a lecturer in Boston University’s Early Childhood Education program, pointed out one positive.

“There is a lot of documentation on how hurried childhood has become,” she said. “But the fact that everything just stopped, that they have more time to be bored and just play at home, there really is a benefit for kids.”


Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.