We live in truly unprecedented times. We have had to reinvent how we live, work and socialise. As it stands now, in the oft-mentioned “new normal”, nothing is predictable—except perhaps that our work and social wardrobes now have one constant, a mask. We have had to adapt to remote working, socialising via Zoom, and planning our life around lockdown safety measures. But where does that leave the children? There is no playbook for this scenario. How do parents talk to their children about social distancing without creating anxiety or panic?
We speak to experts, Maria Micha, clinical mental health counsellor and hypnotherapist at Maria Micha Counselling Center and Katy Harris, counsellor and Behaviour therapist at Family SOS on how to get through these challenging times.
Children are very aware and equally receptive to change. The key is in using the right words and speaking to them honestly and age-appropriately. Children who are two to two-and-a-half years old will understand simple words of caution such as “no” says Micha. They are also easier to control as they will mostly be carried around.
Children older than that (such as pre-schoolers) can be made to understand by explaining the situation further. Words like “germs” and how they can “jump” help in conveying the message, says Harris.
“They understand the concept of needing to clean up injuries and how we put a plaster on skin so that germs don’t ‘jump’ in. So we talk about leaving space so that germs don’t cross,” she adds.
Primary school children, on the other hand, are a little more aware of what is going on around them. “They understand that we can ‘catch’ things—a cold or an infection—so they can understand the need for a healthy barrier; in the form of space that reduces risk,” says Harris.
It is much easier when it comes to older children. But as parents, it is important to filter out the information they are being fed with and elucidate the important points—that this is a measure for this particular very contagious virus, and most importantly, that it is for the protection of those in the community who are vulnerable.
“So the message always is about protection and safety, and not about danger and contagion in this case,” says Harris.
Children tend to have a template, especially younger children, says Micha. Aside from having the talk about germs and how keeping a distance from people when they are out of the house will prevent them from spreading, parents can introduce some fun social distancing exercises into their daily life while they are at home — which will help children, based on their age, remember it in their own way outside of the house.
Games such as “tap—you are touched” within any hour of the day, will help inculcate a certain alertness in them, even when they are out of the home, says Harris. “The rule is not to be nearer than anyone’s outspread arms—and if someone comes nearer you simply extend your arms, and if you can ‘tap’, they are touched and must endure everyone coming to tap them.”
You can also practise walking with your child through an area where there are obstacles—such as a playground or in your own home where things are littered around on purpose, says Harris. The idea of the game is to walk together—holding one another’s shoulders—without bending your elbow.
In the case of older children, it can simply be a lesson in science, that of a contagious disease going around, says Harris, as long as the message elucidates that the danger will pass and there will be recovery and that the world will move on.
Not making physical contact can be unusual for human beings. This is the time to encourage children to use words to communicate, says Micha.
“Children will still have the warmth of the parents and hopefully the grandparents, but we have to explain to children that it is not always possible to express through human contact. It is important that parents ask, and show, them how to use words to express their feelings, be it love, anger, anxiety or sadness,” she says.
“We are mammals and prefer to touch, but we also have more skills than many animals to engage with others whilst we are unable to touch,” explains Harris. There are multiple resources available online that can help parents to learn as well as teach their children to express themselves without having to touch, she adds.
Parents can also make a concerted attempt to arrange for play dates. When mothers meet outside, they can plan it such that there is a good balance of children and adults within the five-people limit allowed in public spaces with the safety measures in place, says Micha. This can be an effective way of strengthening relationships on a one-to-one basis.
“Humans are genetically predisposed to want to belong to a collective community. We are at our best when we belong. The pandemic can suppress this feeling and make us worry that it will disrupt friendships, but it is important not to develop a negative mindset,” stresses Micha.
The responsibility on parents is tremendous, so they must do their utmost to also take care of themselves, their mental health and outlook, insists both Micha and Harris.
There will be times when parents feel demotivated, that they have used up all their resources, yet not done enough under the circumstances to make things feel “normal” for their children. Parents need to be kind to themselves and accept that it is okay to feel afraid, and that small mistakes will happen—“and that they are not endangered by small mistakes”, adds Harris.
The most important message that parents need to pass on to their children is that we need to adapt, says Micha.
“Children adapt, they model up as long as everyone is in a positive space and it is stressed that there is nothing wrong with them and they or no-one is to blame.”