Helping Kids Understand and Practice Social Distancing

It wasn’t that long ago that we were all living our normal, everyday lives. Kids went to school, people went to work, and going to the grocery store wasn’t a big deal. Then COVID-19 happened.

Yes, practicing social distancing and sheltering in place are critical to slow the spread of COVID-19. At the same time, it’s OK to be confused, frustrated or even sad about it. It can be challenging to accept the impact social distancing is having on our lives, and it can be particularly difficult for young kids who do not understand or for teens who feel it shouldn’t apply to them.

teen boy on ipad

COVID-19 has led to huge and abrupt changes for everyone. In addition to the losses we are experiencing, there are many more reasons kids may have a difficult time understanding and coping with social distancing guidelines, including:

  • Uncertainty is difficult. Uncertainty can make anyone feel uncomfortable, uneasy and anxious. Sometimes, people would rather break the rules (i.e., ignore social distancing guidelines) than sit with the discomfort of the unknown.
  • Most kids are social. Younger children may not understand why they can’t see or play with their friends. Older kids and teens may want to ignore the guidelines as it’s developmentally appropriate for them to prefer spending time with friends than family.
  • Older kids and teens may feel invincible. The part of the brain responsible for planning, problem-solving and decision-making isn’t fully developed until around age 25, so it can be challenging for teens to follow the guidelines. Some teens may feel untouchable and struggle to understand the long-term consequences of their behavior.
  • Social media may be telling a different story. Even if your household is practicing social distancing, your kids may be seeing their friends doing exactly what you say they can’t.

parent and child talking

Even though adults are dealing with the bigger burdens of COVID-19 (e.g., changes at work, financial stability, health, etc.), our kids’ lives are changing too.

If your kids are struggling with the concept of social distancing:

  • Be clear and direct. Explain that physically staying 6 feet apart from anyone (outside of those we live with) helps stop the spread of germs and illness. Even though it’s called “social distancing,” kids need to know the physical distance is what is important. We don’t want kids thinking they need to isolate themselves socially.
  • Be developmentally appropriate. For younger kids, help them understand that we can share our germs with other people when we talk, play, shake hands or hug. For older kids seeking more of an explanation, help them understand that you can still carry the virus without showing any signs or symptoms.
  • Be a consistent role model. If your kids see you following the guidelines, they are more likely to do the same. If you are still seeing extended family or friends, or ignoring guidelines at the grocery store, your kids aren’t going to take it seriously.

upset parent consoling teen

For many of us, social distancing can feel like a loss, and we need to grieve our losses—no matter how big or small. Let your kids know their feelings are real and valid.

  • Ask about their feelings. Use open-ended questions and try not to interrupt, offer suggestions or make assumptions.
  • Validate their feelings. Encourage your kids to talk about what they’re feeling and genuinely acknowledge their feelings without any judgment. Repeat back what you hear and let them know it’s OK and normal to feel that way.
  • Avoid minimizing their feelings. Many kids are feeling grief about the loss of normalcy, social connection and plans they were looking forward to. Even if their losses may not seem like a big deal to you, the losses are real to them.
  • Offer reassurance. Let them know that you understand this is hard for them. Assure them this is temporary and that you will work through it together.

toddler cracking eggs into bowl

Like it or not, social distancing is our new, temporary normal. Here are some ways to help make it a little easier:

  • Help them focus on what they can control. Accepting what we can’t change and focusing on what we can helps give us a sense of control. We can’t control how long this will last, but we can wash our hands and practice social distancing.
  • Work together to make it manageable. Work with your kids to create rules around screen time. Maintain clear limits around what they view online and how much time they can spend online each day.
  • Try something new. Allowing kids to try something new can help build their confidence and sense of independence. For younger kids, consider baking together. For older kids, consider engaging them in a fun project they’ve been wanting to do, like painting their room.
  • Practice healthy habits. Routines around things like sleep, meals and physical activity are all important for the body and mind. Routines can also provide a sense of comfort and stability during times of stress.

parent and child looking online together

Help your kids understand that, even though we must stay apart physically, we can still be social and have fun experiences during this time.

mom talking on phone while doing laundry

There’s comfort in knowing the whole world is dealing with this, but that doesn’t necessarily help with the grief and struggles we’re all experiencing. If something is working well for your household, share your wins with friends and family. Who knows? Maybe your small victory for the day could make a huge difference in someone else’s week. We’re all in this together.