Your Kid’s Existential Dread Is Normal

My 9-year-old daughter’s existential crises hit at night. About once a month, she’ll wander into our room after bedtime full of unanswerable questions about her own place in the universe. “Why are we even here?” she’ll ask us. And this tends to happen after 10 p.m. on a weeknight, when her dad and I are least capable of giving her a vaguely satisfying answer. It’s a genuine reflection of the way her mind works, even if it’s also a bedtime stalling tactic.

Last week, her late-evening dread took a new and Covid-related turn. As she sat on the foot of our bed, her questioning projected into the future in a way it hadn’t before. “What if Covid never ends?” she asked. “What if it’s still around when I’m in college?”

My internal response in that moment does not meet the Times standard for expletive use, though I can tell you that the first word was “holy.” I try not to over-worry about how the pandemic is affecting my kids’ tiny psyches, because that’s not completely within my control; I can only provide the safest possible environment for them and pray for the best. If they’re struggling, I support them, but I can’t erase the struggle.

But this line of questioning stuck with me for days after. Especially because as we were talking that night, my daughter said: “When the pandemic started, I was only 7, and I wasn’t scared. Now I’m 9 and I really understand.” It’s a gut punch to think about how Covid has shaped an entire generation’s experience of childhood, and this one hurt more than most.

On the other hand, I was impressed, as I often am, with my daughter’s self-awareness. She understands that her cognitive capacities have grown in the past two years. And it also made me wonder if there was some developmental leap she was experiencing that was not unique to her.

I called Sally Beville Hunter, a clinical associate professor of child and family studies at the University of Tennessee, to see if this kind of philosophical musing was typical for a young tween. “There’s a huge cognitive transition happening” around this age, Hunter told me.

It’s the stage when children develop the capacity for abstract thought, she said. The pioneering developmental psychologist Jean Piaget called this transition the “formal operational stage,” and in his research he found it began around age 11, but Hunter said subsequent research has found that it may begin earlier. “It’s the first time children can consider multiple possibilities and test them against each other,” she said. Which helps explain why my daughter has begun thinking about whether Covid will linger into her college years, a decade from now.

Another aspect of development that may be happening for her is a stage that the psychologist Erik Erikson called “identity versus role diffusion” (also referred to as “role confusion”), which is shorthand for children figuring out their position in the world. “This is the first time when kids have questions about their own existence, questions about self-identity, the meaning of life and the changing role of authority,” Hunter said.

That is to say, my daughter is beginning her yearslong shift from childhood to adulthood, and her existential questioning isn’t unique to children living through a pandemic. As I talked to Hunter, I had a vivid flashback of being around my daughter’s age and not being able to sleep because I was worried about nuclear winter. I remember going into my brother’s room after bedtime to ask him if we were going to die because the Soviets might drop the bomb — and he assured me that it was very unlikely.

The more I think about it, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing that my child’s intellectual journey is affected by what is going on around her. I appreciate having a child who thinks through the impact of a yearslong pandemic instead of being blissfully unaware of reality, even if it is somewhat painful to watch her dawning realization that life has infinite possibilities, not all of them good.

That evening, I told her that she probably wouldn’t have to contend with Covid in college, but I can’t predict the future, so I can’t promise (and I wasn’t quite ready to break down the difference between “pandemic” and “endemic”). I tried to remind her of all the good things that had happened over the past two years, even if we would have preferred that the pandemic had never happened. Her dad told her that the way we make meaning of our lives is through the relationships we have with family and friends, and the good deeds that we do.

I’m not sure she found any of our answers satisfactory, but that’s work she ultimately has to do on her own. And Hunter gave me a suggestion to help us cut down on the nighttime colloquies: Give her a notebook to keep by her bedside, so that she can write down her questions and then ask them in the morning. I still won’t be able to solve her existential crises, but I’ll have a better shot after coffee.

Want More on Child Development?

  • According to Piaget, the stage before the formal operational stage is the “concrete operational stage,” where kids see things in black-and-white terms and may be extremely rule-oriented. This stage is why your 7- or 8-year-old can be kind of a narc.

  • Also normal for young kids: lying. Nearly all little kids lie at some point. It doesn’t mean they’re sociopaths.

  • The developmental reason behind why your kid loves poop jokes.

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