Like many grandparents, Jackie Dishner spent the 15 months of COVID-19 restrictions doing only occasional drive-by visits or video chats with her four grandchildren. So when she finally got to go inside one of their homes, her 4-year-old granddaughter assumed she didn't know her way around. Making a sweeping gesture with her arm, she announced she could guide her grandmother to the bathroom.
"She forgot I knew where their bathroom was, “ says Dishner, who lives in Phoenix. “They're young, so it's crazy how much kids grow in a year.”
Dishner's experience illustrates how the pandemic's forced separation left its mark in both minor and major ways. Many grandparents missed more than a year of their grandchildren's lives or only got to watch it unfold on FaceTime or Zoom. And now as they reconnect, their grandchildren are not who they were in March 2020.
The pre-pandemic toddler has become a confident preschooler. The goofy middle schooler has turned into a sullen teenager. And the teenager is a college student, perhaps sporting a new tattoo.
"People are having to find each other again,” says Lisa Ibekwe, a licensed clinical social worker, anger management specialist and CEO at the Comfy Place, a therapy practice in the Atlanta area. Even those who once had close relationships may need to get to know each other again, because “the reality is we've all been closed off for so long that a lot of people have come out of this experience different.”
That includes grandchildren. Grandparents trying to reconnect with their grandchildren need to start by accepting that everyone has been changed by the pandemic, Ibekwe says. A year is a long time in a child's life, even in “normal” times — kids gain new skills, find new interests, move into another developmental stage. They may not connect with grandparents the same way they used to. And they also may have experienced pandemic-induced trauma.
Grandparents are also different people than they were before COVID-19 and might react differently, in good or difficult ways, to their grandchildren.
"Nobody's going to come out of it the same person they were when they went in — even the youngest child who seems like life has maintained some type of normalcy,” Ibekwe says. “Because of how the brain works, everybody is going to be modified from this experience."