Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Sheltering-in-Place Is Turning Us Into Children Again

We feel supervised, scolded, and scared.

My friend was in the hospital, too sick to savor food or flowers. Too sick for stories or songs. Too sick for silly memories: "Remember our bonfire?" sounded random and rude. Incapable of curing anyone, I was just a potential vector, every laugh a microbial fusillade.

Millions of us now feel that way: useless at best, lethal at worst.

Whatever we, the inessential masses, might consider doing besides sitting home alone could now be deemed unnecessary, dangerous, disastrous, some say murderous. Our past projects and passions seem suddenly silly or submerged, horizons either immolating right before our eyes or barb-wired until further notice for the greater good.

We wade through waves of viscous mystery — material, medical, economical, emotional — from room to room then back again between windows and walls whose all-day-all-night neverchangingness revisits having chickenpox or being grounded: Stay there until I say you can move.

We know these walls too well to find comfort in their familiarity after the first week when their sameness signals danger: Are you still here? What marauder holds you hostage? Is the outside air poisonous — or are you? Is this seclusion for your own protection — or a punishment? Have you been caged to save a fragile populace?

All-day-all-night at-homeness reminds us of childhood when we were too small and relatively stupid to be trusted wandering outside unsupervised, too soft for work or school.

These days, the more informed we try to be, the more childish we feel: staring wide-eyed at numerals while being scolded, "Wash your hands!" as scientists say how likely we are to die.

We cannot, until further notice, fully control where we go or what we do or with how many friends. We cannot eat in restaurants or fly in planes. We will be stared at if we sneeze. Yes, this is for the greater good but it flashes us back to being age 5.

Our childhood selves feared invisible monsters. Now we do, again. What if I or my dear ones touched handrails or stood too close to strangers 13 days ago or took any of 20 million now-forbidden risks?

Our childhood selves drank milk daily and played their favorite games. This strange new pandemic-driven re-childedness dissolves the regimens that defined our adult identities and fueled our confidence. We might as well be re-learning to tie our shoes and eat with spoons. Behaviors in which we have no experience are now required by law.

Now we fear making whole new realms of mistakes, being blasted for boo-boos — as if existential dread was not enough.

Feeling childish and powerless is baffling and embarrassing. But it might be the most normal reaction to abnormal circumstances.

Yes, it's new. We might never before have felt this weird spumoni of sorrow, solitude, terror, anger, uncertainty, and ennui. But what if, rather than fanning the shame-flame, we experienced it as — well, an experience? What if we owned it and allowed it and observed it from within and realized what it might reveal?

Will that be: Woohoo, I am patient and resilient, innovative and adaptive, mercifully easily amused? Will it be: I fear isolation, separation, and aloneness more than death itself — and, suddenly remember why? Or do I most fear hospitals or barren shelves or empty bank accounts? Because of which still-suppurating wounds?

Is all this terror teaching me to self-soothe at long last? Or do I still scream Shut up, moron at my soft, scared inner child? Is it amazing to explore in all its ostensible wretchedness a virtually universal and historic shared experience? Is being un-busy un-bad? Which aspects of work and the outside world do I really not miss?

More from S. Rufus
More from Psychology Today