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Only children at an ‘advantage’ during social isolation: psychologist

Only children at an ‘advantage’ during social isolation: psychologist
This period of social restrictions and distanced learning has been an isolating time for kids, but only children have faced an additional challenge: no siblings to play with. Laurel Gregory shares how one family has found connection during the pandemic.

When the first cases of COVID-19 arrived in Alberta in March, Sabre Fix’s world shrunk.

His daily commute to school, 10 kilometres away, was replaced with learning from home. Hockey practices and games were swapped for bike rides around the block, and wrestling and cracking jokes with friends in person shifted to gaming at home.

While the 10-year-old was met with an abundance of free time, dealing with time alone was nothing new — Sabre is an only child.

“The worst part is probably just being lonely. You don’t have anyone to play with or do anything with really.”

When Sabre isn’t connecting with friends online, doing schoolwork or entertaining himself, he relies on his parents to step in as playmates. Mom Cheryl Fix says the social isolation brought on by the pandemic has exacerbated that pressure.

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“The challenges are — Sabre and I have talked about this a lot — it’s that mom and dad have to be playmates when Sabre doesn’t want to play by himself anymore,” Fix said.

“So we get involved a lot — like going in the pool when it’s really cold (not something I would normally do), play baseball or soccer or basketball, or bike in the ravine in the mud. Not things I would ever think I would be doing but you do because he can only do so much on his own.”

READ MORE: Kids have been stuck home for weeks. Here’s how to ease them back into the world

While only children don’t have siblings as built-in pandemic playmates, social psychologist and veteran researcher on only children Susan Newman believes they had a leg up emotionally to weather the social isolation.

“Only children in some sense had an advantage because they were used to spending a lot of time by themselves. They were used to entertaining themselves. So that was one thing that was helpful for only children,” Newman said.

“The other was, they were used to their parents’ scrutiny. You know, kids have not been around their parents 24/7 in recent history; they’re at daycare, at school, at their activities, they are with their friends. But only children are used to having their parents around a lot so this essentially being on top of them was not as traumatic as it was for other kids who didn’t have that experience.”

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Newman said connecting with friends and extended family members virtually, taking on new projects and creating rituals can help only children fill the extra time at home.

“Because of the social isolation, it’s helpful if you can introduce anticipation of some sort like, ‘Let’s say after dinner we are going to play a game.’ We, meaning parents and child,” Newman said.

“This is an opportunity to build new rituals and traditions in your family. You might want to start a project and then your child or children will look forward to, ‘OK, at 4 p.m. mom is going to stop work and we can go outside and work in the garden or build a fence or paint a room.”

READ MORE: University of Calgary launches study to explore children’s experiences with COVID-19 and role in transmission

Over the last three months, Sabre’s parents have facilitated all sorts of enriching home projects: painting birdhouses and baseboards, cooking dinner three times a week and learning to bake with the help of grandma and Zoom.

“She teaches Sabre, Sabre’s cousin in Airdrie and his grandpa how to bake a cake. Now his older cousins who are 20, 21, 24, they are joining in and some of the aunties and uncles are joining in. So we make it a family afternoon on Saturdays,” Fix said. “Sabre has made some pretty awesome cakes and cookies. So it hasn’t been great for our waistline but good for him to learn to bake and cook.”

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With Alberta easing restrictions, Sabre is planning to have a friend over this weekend for the first time in three months. While the only child has managed his time learning new skills and hanging out with his parents, he misses “wrestling” and the humour his friends bring in real life.