Understanding the Pandemic’s Impact Through a Developmental Lens

Understanding the Pandemic’s Impact Through a Developmental Lens

by Maggie Mulqueen
COVID has had devastating effects across the lifespan, but there has also been hope and renewal.
Filed Under: Depression


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Rounding the Corner?

As we round the corner on the first year of living with COVID-19, it behooves us to ask the following questions: where is the intersection between developmental theory and the pandemic, and how can therapists use this information in their clinical work? Despite similarities in our clients’ experiences, there are significant differences, due solely to age, in how the pandemic has affected their lives. Although the pandemic has been discussed from a multitude of perspectives, such as race and socioeconomic status, most commonly it is referenced as a singular event, i.e., the pandemic. In fact, our clients’ age at the time of the pandemic is bound to influence their life both now and in the future. For many, the pandemic has had a devastating impact on their health, food security, learning, and living environment, but even for the more fortunate, living through a pandemic has had an impact on their long-term development as well.

The landmark study by Wallerstein and Kelly, Surviving the Breakup: How Parents and Children Cope with Divorce (2008), changed the conversation about the consequences of divorce on children as a function of their age at the time the marriage ended. As I reflected on that study, I thought a similar examination of the significance of the pandemic across ages would be valuable. Since we have yet to experience the true end of the pandemic, these are preliminary musings meant to be formative rather than summative; I offer them with the hope that as therapists our voices will contribute to writing the history of the consequences of living through a pandemic. 
from the newborn adopted by a single mother in my practice to the individuals entering retirement and everyone in between, the pandemic has wrought havoc in unique ways across the lifespan

The fields of psychology and psychotherapy are often bifurcated along normal/abnormal lines on the individual level, but what does it mean developmentally when entire populations have been thrust into the abnormal state that has resulted from COVID? We are living through abnormal times, and our clients are expressing their desire for normalcy. And the various ways they are expressing their yearning for normalcy are not merely a reflection of their pre-COVID lives, they are a function of the developmental tasks that were thwarted by the pandemic. 

Across the Lifespan

Infants and very young children have a multitude of developmental milestones to meet. The tasks of language development and early socialization were severely challenged by mask wearing and lockdown restrictions. Children as young as preschoolers have been taught to stay away from others and not to share their toys. We can only imagine how hard parents and teachers will have to work in an attempt to reverse the message that the world is a dangerous place when these children return to in-person early education programs. Maintaining six feet of separation and wearing a mask is a challenge for most adults, let alone three-year-olds. Starting life from the vantage point of mistrust has far-reaching implications. Healthy autonomy rests on a foundation of trust in the adult caregivers in a young child’s life. For those young children who fear venturing into the world, critical developmental tasks will be harder to achieve.

In addition to falling behind academically, latency-age children lost many opportunities for extracurricular activities and the friendships they foster. Rather than having the typical, slow movement toward freedom, their options for exploration were limited. Adolescents were deprived of the chance to stretch their wings and assert their independence. One father in my practice said, “I hate seeing my kid on the couch hour after hour. He has nowhere to go, but I’ve got to wonder, what is he really learning about life?” Will our younger clients’ sense of the world and themselves be forever diminished by learning how quickly everything can be upended?

As college students returned home, frustrated at having their longed-for college years reduced to online classes in their childhood bedrooms, the rise in reports of depression were significant but not unexpected (Anderson, 2020). Young adults couldn’t find jobs and “failed to launch.” Some of my young adult patients adapted easily to working remotely and created pods with a select group of friends. This was true for some older adults as well, and many families came to appreciate the opportunity to spend more time together.
what lagged for some of my young adult clients, however, was the opportunity to pursue romantic relationships with any semblance of normalcy
Those who did date tended to commit quickly to each other to feel COVID-safe. In many cases, their friends and family never got to meet their partners, and couples had few opportunities to explore activities together as a way to assess compatibility. Depending on how many of these relationships stand the test of time when the world reopens, we may see a delay in marital age for this generation.

Other adult patients put significant life markers, such as having children, on hold due to the restrictions of lockdowns and the fear of spreading or contracting the virus. It is too soon to know how these delayed rites of passage will impact their futures. One mother in my practice, who has a toddler, is rethinking her desire to have more children as she waits for the data on the safety of the vaccines and pregnancy to be made public. Parenting as a rule presents inherent challenges, but as the toll of the pandemic has worn on, many of the parents in my practice voiced concern about their ability to juggle the responsibilities of work and home. Those parents with children enrolled in remote learning were at great risk both emotionally and practically. Some quit jobs or cut back their hours, while others relaxed their previous sanctions against “screen time” and abdicated specific parental responsibilities out of desperation. Mothers, in particular, were burdened with trying to fill in the gaps created by changes to routines and schedules. As their own needs went unmet, reports of depression and substance abuse increased.

Some adult clients also felt angry that the rug had been pulled out from under them just as they were about to advance in their jobs. The loss of economic stability is bound to have far-reaching consequences for their own futures as well as those of their dependents. As opportunities grew limited, those who had the ability to pivot and embrace a different career or lifestyle fared much better than those for whom the losses are permanent.
some patients internalized these losses as personal failings, while others put the blame on external sources
The long-term implications of either outcome on self-esteem needs to be addressed.

For many of my middle-age and older adults, this time has been one of intense grieving. Many of them experienced their own version of “failure to launch.” Travel plans were canceled, downsizing was put on hold as adult children returned home, and retirement was delayed or accelerated due to economic changes. A patient in her sixties said, “I’d planned to work until 70, but it’s clear with cost-cutting measures (at her company), I’m being forced out. I’m just not ready. And with nowhere to go, what am I going to do with all my time?” She became quite depressed and worried about the quality of her “last chapter.” Others lamented the inability to hug their elderly parents or their grandchildren. The geographical separation from family and friends was heartbreaking and it led to revising priorities. Another patient, a wealthy man in his late fifties, decided to take an early retirement. His response to COVID-19 was to devote himself to his family. After some initial missteps, his family adjusted to this new arrangement. His increased presence in his children’s lives is bound to influence their development as well as his own.

The elderly, who are most at risk of dying from the virus (Centers for Disease Control, 2021), have the least opportunity to make up for lost time. News reports were filled with harrowing photos from nursing homes and hospitals. The lack of stimulation accelerated cognitive decline. Due to the lockdowns, many of the elderly suffered from increased isolation and loneliness. What was lost for this generation may be the hardest to calculate, but their deaths will reverberate in the lives they left behind for years to come. We can only hope that the horrific images of people dying alone in hospitals may inspire a change in how we view the needs of the elderly and end-of-life concerns in this country.

Several of my patients lost parents or grandparents to COVID-19 and other illnesses. Unable to have funerals or attend services, their grief has been much more complicated. Some are living with the pain of knowing their loved one died alone. It has made them rethink their own plans for growing old. Aging in place seems much more attractive to many at this point. As a society, how we manage the grief and devastation of the pandemic will shape the values and aspirations of generations to come.

Hopeful Signs

Across age groups, there have been hopeful signs that some consequences of the pandemic may have changed the culture in ways that might promote successful development. This is by no means to imply that the loss of life and cost to our economy were worth a pandemic, but it is helpful to consider what positive learnings we can take for ourselves and for our clients into a post-pandemic world. Awareness of climate change and the Black Lives Matter movement took on heightened significance around the globe. These attentions will hopefully have long-reaching consequences for improving the lives of younger generations and those with whom we work. Also, out of the necessity of scaling back our lifestyle during lockdowns, many people deepened relationships with a few key people in their lives, improving their feelings of being connected in the world. Time and again, what I heard from clients was an appreciation for the slower pace of life necessitated by pandemic protocols. The opportunity to work remotely enhanced job happiness for many. The absence of commuting and the limited availability of extracurricular activities was a game changer in terms of time management. As one client said, “I never had time to think before, I just did. Now I’m asking myself, what do I really want in my life?” Reconfiguring work/home boundaries is likely to be one of the most significant by-products of the pandemic.

it is helpful to consider what positive learnings we can take for ourselves and for our clients into a post-pandemic world
Some found comfort through a heightened relationship with nature, which deepened their life satisfaction. Seeking time outside was a positive outlet. One client, who is a runner, appreciated the decrease in traffic and went on longer runs since he no longer commuted to work. “As I watched the seasons change and heard the birds like never before, I found renewed energy,” he said. In general, there was an appreciation for the preciousness of life and a sense of urgency to not waste time.

Personal Reflections

As I reflect on my own experience during the pandemic, I am reminded of the influence another historical event had on my life, albeit indirectly. My parents were both children of the Great Depression, which had a devastating impact on their formative years. They did not have to maintain social distance or wear masks, but each of their families suffered significant economic loss. Worries about money and food scarcity were constant themes in my house as I was growing up, even though by then my parents were leading a solid 1960s middle-class life. Both their scars and their ability to survive were underpinnings in how they made choices as adults and parents, and what they wished for their own children’s futures.

It is still too early to comprehend the full impact of the pandemic, but we already know that the longevity of American citizens dropped by a full year due to COVID (Andrasfay and Goldman, 2021). Nonetheless, it is not just the loss of a single year that will define the lasting impact of the pandemic. As I listen to my patients grappling with life during and, hopefully, post-pandemic, I applaud their resilience while acknowledging to them what they have lost during the pandemic. As the fear of the virus abates and we move out of abnormal times, our challenge will be to understand what normal development will look like in a post-pandemic world and to support each person’s quest to become their best self.


Anderson, G. (2020, September 11). Mental Health Needs Rise With Pandemic. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/09/11/students-great-need-mental-health-support-during-pandemic

Andrasfay, L. and Goldman, N. (2021). Reductions in 2020 US life expectancy due to COVID-19 and the disproportionate impact on the Black and Latino populations. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Feb 2021, 118 (5) e2014746118; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2014746118

Centers for Disease Control. (2021, February 26). Older Adults. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/older-adults.html
Wallerstein, J. S., & Kelly, J. B. (2008). Surviving the breakup: How parents and children cope with divorce. Basic Books.

3. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/pandemic-isolation-can-be-especially-hard-on-older-adults/

© 2021, Psychotherapy.net, LLC
Maggie Mulqueen Maggie Mulqueen, PhD, is a psychologist in Brookline, MA, where she has maintained a private practice for over thirty years. In her clinical work she sees individuals and couples with a focus on deepening self-awareness and building relationships. She is the author of On Our Own Terms: Redefining Competence and Femininity (SUNY Press, 1992). Dr. Mulqueen has published essays in The Boston Globe, AARP Magazine, Psychotherapy Networker, Boston Parents Paper, Brain, Child Magazine and Wellesley/Weston Magazine. She was formerly on the faculty of Lesley University in the Counseling and Psychology Division. Dr. Mulqueen graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1984 where she received the Phi Delta Kappa award for Dissertation of the Year.