Most years, summertime is when kids are free to spend hours playing with friends around their neighborhood. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the way kids interact with friends and non-immediate family members may look different to keep as many people healthy as possible.
If you’re looking for ways to explain social distancing to your children, we’ve got you covered. Keep these seven tips in mind to not only help kids understand why social distancing is important but feel motivated to do so, too.
1. Start by explaining what germs are and how we can prevent spreading them.
If children can understand why social distancing can prevent people from getting sick, they’ll be more likely to follow it as best as they can. Explain to your child that germs can make people sick, and they spread when we get close to other people. But by staying six feet apart, washing our hands, and wearing a mask when we’re around others, we can help keep as many people healthy as possible.
2. Share a helpful visual with younger children.
Younger children might not fully grasp why germs make people sick and what it looks like to socially distance. Sometimes, explaining issues through an age-appropriate analogy can help kids understand.
One hands-on activity from the San Mateo County Office of Education is a Six Feet Walk. First, tie knots along a rope about six feet apart. Have one child hold the rope at the first knot and another at the second to show how far apart they need to stand from people who aren’t in their immediate family. Walk around the neighborhood holding onto the rope so the children get a good feel for how far six feet is.
And for a visual way to explain germs and handwashing to children, check out this video one of our Waterford UPSTART parents put together and shared with us earlier in the year.
3. Use simple, positive language about social distancing.
In an interview with ABC27 News in Harrisburg, PA, Dr. Melissa Brown suggests keeping your explanations straightforward and focusing on the positives—like keeping people healthy and finding creative new ways to spend time with friends. That way, children are less likely to feel scared and helpless about the pandemic and feel motivated to social distance as a way to keep their loved ones safe.
4. Explain that social distancing means connecting differently with friends, not losing touch forever.
Some children may worry that until the pandemic is over, they’ll never be able to see their friends. Reassure your child that while they may not be able to spend time with their friends at a close distance, they can still connect with friends in new ways.
KidsHealth recommends remembering that despite the name, social distancing is more about “physical distancing.” Explain to your child that while hugging their friend might not be the best idea right now, they could still video chat or (depending on local restrictions and family comfort levels) say hello from a distance in the yard or at the park.
5. Answer questions honestly and age-appropriately.
While you talk with your children about social distancing, they may have questions. For example, they might wonder what would happen if their friends get coronavirus. Or they might ask when they’ll be able to see at-risk loved ones again.
When you avoid questions or hide what’s going on in the world, it can actually give children more anxiety, according to healthcare expert Tara Haelle. Instead, listen to your child’s questions related to social distancing and COVID-19. Try to answer them clearly and with information that makes sense based on their age.
Older kids and teenagers may understand social distancing on a health level. But they will probably still feel unhappy about not hanging out with friends in the same way as before.
The Children’s Health Organization suggests using your child’s natural sense of altruism to keep them social distancing. For example, you could reframe social distancing as a way to safeguard older relatives. That way they have a known face to picture when they think about the at-risk individuals they’re protecting.
7. Listen and respond to your child’s feelings.
It’s normal and maybe even expected for children to be unhappy about social distancing. It’s difficult for everyone, adults included. If your child is upset about not seeing friends or family, listen and empathize with them. Social distancing can be hard for everyone, even parents.
Then, suggest positive ways that they can alleviate their sadness—even if it’s not in the way that they’d first choose. If they can’t see a friend in person, for example, they could write a letter or schedule a virtual playdate instead. Instead of focusing on what they can’t do, help your child get creative about all the ways they can connect with friends.