How Do You Explain Social Distancing and Pandemics to Your Children?
Maybe you think this isn't a big deal.
Maybe you've hoarded up a pantry full of toilet paper and hand sanitizers.
Maybe you saw this coming and you're just praying everyone else will start following instructions sooner rather than later.
Regardless of your opinion on the current situation, your children are most likely out of school or participating in distance learning. If they aren't, they probably will be soon. Your children are hearing the news and what others are saying around them. They are seeing people in stores with masks and gloves; empty shelves and long lines. Your children have questions.
You must have answers. Even if you don't know the answer; you must have answers. Children need your strength and honesty now more than ever. How you answer exactly is up to you, but here are some tips to help guide your conversation.
Be Honest but Reassuring.
During times of fear, children need to trust you in order to combat their anxiety. If you aren't sure what the truth is, explain that in a reassuring and confident manner. This will help your children understand the complexities of life while knowing they can still come to your for guidance and help. Reassure them with the protective measures your family and community are taking and balance this with the seriousness of the risks at hand. Remind them of their impact in the world when they make responsible and informed choices.
Keep it Developmentally Appropriate.
If your child uses only 4-5 words in his sentences, he most likely will struggle to understand if you're using sentences of 10+ words to explain everything. Keep it simple and keep it short. Less is more here.
There are social stories and other resources for children that are cropping up around the current situation. It may be helpful to use dolls and action figures to help explain social distancing, isolation and infection rates. You can also use these action figures to role play how to take care of someone who is sick, which will offer reassurance and familiarity with a possibly unknown situation.
Drawing is another helpful way for children to sort out their emotions. Consider drawing and other art projects to help process feelings of uncertainty and fear.
Visual reminders about hand washing, face touching, social distancing, and appropriate coughing/sneezing are helpful as well. You might be surprised how much these reminders will help you as well.
Don't Make Promises.
Going back to being honest, children need to know they can trust you. If you make promises during uncertain times, you're risking this trust. Avoid promising that "everything will be alright". It probably will be, but don't promise that. Instead, give reassurance, "Things may get touch for us all, but we're here for each other and will handle this together."
The best way to measure your child's understanding of a situation is to listen to her. Ask her how she feels about what's happening. Ask her what she thinks about it. Ask her what she's thankful for and what she's afraid of. Answer these questions for yourself as well. The more this becomes a dialogue, the less fear will be involved. When there is less fear, higher level cognitive processes such as learning, planning and decision making can function better.
I've been keeping an eye on various outlets for resources pertaining to this unprecedented event. Here are a few of my favorites so far:
Since the above resources require strong language skills, I also wrote a very simple social story for children who require a more straightforward and direct explanation.
People have germs.
Some germs make people sick.
I need to be careful about my germs.
I can wash my hands.
I can keep my hands down and to myself.
I can stay in my space bubble.
My space bubble is as big as my arms.
Germs can make people very sick.
I feel good when I am careful about my germs.
If you or your child feels sick, stay home and call your doctor. Avoid spreading by following hygiene routines and social distancing. Remember, with COVID-19, you are contagious while you are asymptomatic and while children are less likely to develop serious illness, they can be carriers to vulnerable family members. Stay healthy everyone.