Explaining Social Distancing to Children

The excitement of skipping school has long since faded and kids may be hard pressed to understand why life as they know it seems to have ceased.Breaking down social distancing into simple, meaningful sound bites will enable toddlers to tweens to understand this new normal: 

We're all working together to fight this enemy. 

Children respond well when we personify things that are difficult to understand. Even through elementary school, they often think of the world in terms of good guys and bad guys, superheroes and villains. If we speak about germs as if they are tiny villains we are attempting to fight, children have a mission to latch onto, a larger purpose that extends beyond just obeying their parents' instructions.

Here's what we can do.

It's important to be concrete and spell out the things that we cannot do in very clear terms, for example: "We have to stay far away from other people right now; we can't hug, or hold hands, or even go to each other's houses. What we can do is FaceTime, talk on the phone, write letters, and draw pictures we can send in the mail." It's important to note the things we still can do in order to maintain strong connections with our loved ones.

This is weird and different.

Children take comfort in knowing they are not alone in their emotional reactions. They are undoubtedly picking up on how strange things feel, how different things are now from the normal structure and routines of their daily lives. Pointing that out using simple language, and acknowledging that everyone is feeling the same will do a lot to regulate their emotional response.

A lot of things are still the same. 

While we acknowledge how different things feel right now, we also need to draw attention to things that are the same. This helps children recognize that there are still many parts of their lives that are familiar and recognizable. They still love Paw Patrol, or Frozen 2, or video games, they still get chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast on Saturdays, they still have to brush their teeth. And they're still just as loved as ever—in fact, even more.

You are safe.  

Children show their stress in different ways: throwing more tantrums, being more moody, irritable or defiant, or regressing in a particular area such as language or potty training. This just means that kids are showing that they're worried—or even if they are not yet—there is nothing more valuable than giving them a hug and letting them know you've got them and it's all going to be okay.

Grown-ups working together to help fix the problem.

The infinite wisdom of Mr. Rogers encourages us to look for the helpers in times of crisis. Talk to kids about the scientists looking for medicines and vaccines to fight this virus, healthcare workers working non-stop to help those that are sick, and the countless other unsung heroes that working hard to make sure we have what we need.

This stinks... 

…Yes, it really does. Kids will benefit if we validate that rather than trying to deny it or always paint it as sunshine and lollipops. It stinks that the school play, or the sports season, or the birthday party is canceled. It stinks that it's about to get really nice out, and we can't all get together for a picnic. It stinks that we can't see Grandma and Grandpa. It stinks that we can't give our best friends hugs. It really, really does.

But…there is a bright side.  

Reframing an issue is not the same as invalidating it. You cannot say that this spring break is going to be the best one ever without kids seeing right through you. You can, however, point out the silver linings—and in fact, there are many. Look at how many crafts we can do! Look how much screen time you're getting! OMG, we get to watch a whole movie (or two, or five) on a weekday?

We are all in this together

Children feel more secure when they recognize that they are part of a larger community. For younger kids, it can be helpful to name everyone else who is staying home as part of social distancing: "No one is seeing anyone right now—not Grandma, not Grandpa, not Uncle Bill, not Aunt Suzy, not your friends from school." For older kids, talking about the different cities, states, and countries undergoing this can be comforting: "10-year-olds in so many places aren't allowed to see their friends right now."

We are taking this one day at a time. 

Kids get overwhelmed if they start thinking about having to make these life adjustments for too long. Missing school, or their friends, for the upcoming months can feel very overwhelming. Instead, focus on what is going to happen today, and on what we can do to stay in the present moment.

And remember that sometimes giving comfort isn't about having the right words at all—can be as simple as a really long, extra-tight cuddle.

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