For families around the world, coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is affecting day-to-day lives in unprecedented ways. In addition to taking simple precautions such as regularly cleaning hands, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended that families put distance between themselves and others to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. In response, many events, businesses and schools are temporarily closing.
For parents, this creates a unique situation where kids will be at home much more than normal. Learn why it is important to stay healthy during this time and tips for navigating social distancing with children and teens.
What is social distancing?
Social distancing means keeping distance between yourself and other people. Much is still being learned about how COVID-19 spreads, but it is believed to spread mainly from person to person. This means the more people are in close contact with each other (about 6 feet), the more the virus has the chance to spread. Social distancing is an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, which can be especially important for those who are at higher risk of illness.
The CDC does not outline all specifics of how to go about social distancing, but they have provided some guidance, including:
- Delay or cancel large gatherings and events
- Avoid social gatherings in groups of more than 10 people
- Avoid eating in public places such as restaurants and instead, opt for to-go options
- Avoid non-essential travel, shopping trips and social visits
The CDC website is a good resource for staying up to date with the latest recommendations to protect your family during a COVID-19 outbreak.
Tips for handling time at home and social distancing with kids
Adjusting to any new situation can be challenging, especially when it involves the uncertainty of a new virus. Here are a few ways you can navigate being at home with family while social distancing.
1. Establish a new routine
Routines and schedules can be an important part of self-care for children. While school and regular activities may be affected temporarily, you can establish a new schedule for your child to create a sense of normalcy. "It's difficult to know what to expect in this time of uncertainty," says Roshini Kumar, LPC, clinical therapist at Children's Health℠. "Routines provide guidance so children do know what to expect, which can help relieve anxiety."
Encourage children to stick to a regular sleep schedule and work together on a general timeline of activities for each day. Turn to trusted resources for suggestions of sample schedules and keep in touch with your child's school for directions or opportunities for virtual learning. Build in time for play or activities that your child enjoys as well.
2. Make a list of projects or goals
Many times, our to-do lists are overshadowed by overbooked schedules. Try to use this time as an opportunity to revisit those projects and work together as a family to accomplish them. Make a list of goals, whether fun or necessary, and see what you have time to tackle. Maybe it's a list of books your child wants to read, or a project to reorganize your child's bedroom.
Kumar suggests turning this list into a chart to display in a public space, like the refrigerator. When a task is complete, mark it with a fun sticker and verbally praise those accomplishments. "Positive reinforcement and physical representations of progress can go a long way during this time," she says.
For older children and teens, consider taking this time to teach them valuable life skills around the house, such as learning to change the oil in the car, fix the sink or manage a budget. If you are recommending that your teen read a book, start a family book club and read it along with them. Even while at home, the entire family can have a goal of exploring new places. Many museums and national parks are offering virtual tours. Check your local resources to learn about other virtual offerings the community has, such as streaming story times or concerts.
3. Build in time for physical activity
Exercise is an important part of staying healthy, both physically and mentally. It's recommended that children and teens get at least one hour of physical activity each day. Even when you are spending time around the house, set aside time to get active. Whether that's playing in the yard, taking a daily walk together or even a family yoga session, there are ways to mix it up. The gym might be closed, but there are a lot of great family-friendly workouts online for free. GoNoodle offers a free online resource, GoNoodle: Good Energy at Home, which offers movement and mindfulness videos as well as downloadable learning resources and ideas for off-screen activities for children of all ages.
See more ideas for staying active at home as a family.
4. Make an effort to connect despite distance
Social distancing does not mean that you cannot check in with family members or friends. "We are wired for connection," explains Nicholas J. Westers, Psy.D., ABPP, a Children's Health clinical psychologist and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern. "Although we may not be able to connect physically, we can certainly still connect socially and emotionally."
Make an effort to call or video chat with loved ones to see how they are doing. Reach out to parents of your child's classmates or friends. You may be able to set up a virtual playdate or chat with friends, depending on your child's age. Some children might appreciate writing to and hearing back from their teacher. Teachers have been their constant throughout the school year and hearing how they are doing can help relieve anxiety from being separated from their classroom.
Some are also choosing to write letters to people who may be affected by visitor restrictions due to COVID-19, such as people in nursing homes. Thinking of others' feelings throughout this time can be a helpful way to feel connected.
5. Appeal to older children's empathy
Older children and teens may require a different approach, especially if they experience significant boredom or want to disregard social distancing recommendations because they cannot tolerate perceived restrictions on their freedom or a loss of autonomy. The best approach may be one that appeals to the natural empathy and altruism of your child.
"Appeal to how your child can help contribute to society's attempt to overcome this pandemic rather than what they are losing," encourages Dr. Westers. "Messages of altruism are often more effective than those of coercion."
Explain how taking precautions through hand washing and social distancing can help protect loved ones, such as grandparents and other at-risk individuals. Your child may be less prone to feel that you are attempting to restrict their freedom and autonomy and more prone to feel that they are contributing to the well-being of friends, family and society.
6. Have patience with yourself and each other
Parents should know that as you seek to develop a "new normal," it's okay to acknowledge that the situation is not normal. During a time of many unknowns, it's understandable to feel some stress or anxiety, and this is okay. Model healthy habits for your child by taking time to take care of yourself. Talk to your children and let them know that feeling anxious during these times is normal, and then direct them to healthy ways to manage such anxiety.
"Positive thinking is important during this time, and positive thinking stems from positive conversations," encourages Kumar. "Go around the table at breakfast or dinner time and state two things you appreciate about your family that day. These small conversations help foster empathy and patience with one another."
Know that your child's schedule does not have to be perfect nor should you feel pressured to be 100% productive every day. The most important thing is that you are there for your child and encourage open communication as you adjust to this change together. See tips for talking to your child about COVID‑19.
Children's Health psychologists and psychiatrists can help children and teens manage feelings of loneliness, depression and anxiety. Learn more about programs we offer to support mental, emotional and behavioral health.
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