When Crystal Rivas woke up on a Saturday morning in late June, her body felt off. All night, she was going in and out of chills and hot flashes. So out of an abundance of caution, she removed all her kids laptops and video games from her bedroom.
"Go to your room, close the door," said Rivas to her kids. "I’ll put the stuff outside and disinfect everything."
Little did Rivas know, this marked the beginning of a two-week period locked in her room without her kids. She soon tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
Rivas is one of many parents forced to separate from their children and temporarily break up the family to prevent further spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.
"I love my kids, more than anything in the world," said Rivas. "Me staying in quarantine was the best thing for them. What kind of mom would I be if I exposed my children and willingly got them sick? So I couldn’t."
Luckily, Rivas lives with her dad. He was able to take care of her three kids. Her youngest, Alonzo, is autistic. Rivas says breaking up the 10-year-old's routine was challenging.
"He didn’t like it one bit," said Rivas. "I almost broke quarantine because he was crying for me so bad. He was like ‘stupid corona... I just want to go in there with my mom.'"
Dr. Leslie Frankel, who studies parent-child relationships at the University of Houston, says this is a reasonable reaction for a kid in this kind of situation, particularly when it's not their choice.
"We know that separation and especially prolonged separations between parents and children are harmful to children," said Frankel. "And it’s really considered to be a traumatic thing for a child to go through."
Separation, even for a short period of time, has the ability to affect child development and mental health. However, the widespread impact of the pandemic and the unique challenges children are now facing is not well understood at this point. Research is still very much in the early stages. Researchers do know that kids, whether a parent is sick or not, are prone to absorbing stress.
"So many kids are growing up right now in this context of stress," said Frankel. "This really hasn’t been studied ever at this scale."
And adults today are experiencing stress from all sides from health to finances to mourning loss. Dr. Frankel says there are ways to manage separation.
"We do know from research that people often talk to kids using euphemisms and words they don't really understand," said Frankel. "We need to talk to kids in ways that are direct. We need to be comfortable with situations so we can convey it to them in ways that aren't scary."
Dr. Frankel says finding ways to stay connected is really important for parents separated from their kids due to COVID-19.
"The most important thing for a child is to know that their parent is okay and to maintain that connection," said Frankel.
Crystal Rivas says her children did understand the situation, but it was still hard to stay away from them.
"I did have separation issues," said Rivas. "I’m a very affectionate mom. I love giving my kids hugs and kisses. When I would hear him cry, I wanted to come out of my room."
She says they found ways to stay connected, while staying apart — mostly through technology like video chatting. Rivas and her three kids also talked through the door and had window visits.
She has recovered and says the impact of this experience on her children was short-lived except a small change with her youngest son.
"He’s a little bit more independent," said Rivas. "He wants to sleep in his room now with his brother."
And Rivas missed having him that close when she was sick. In her situation, she missed her kids as much as they missed her.
Sara Willa Ernst is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Sara's work at Houston Public Media is made possible with support from KERA in Dallas.