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Helping children and caregivers cope with social distancing
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Editor's note: Rocky Mountain PBS is a partner of UC Health.

“Can’t I just have some friends over to watch a movie?”

“All my other friends are doing it. Why can’t I?”

These are the tough — and possibly familiar — questions parents and caregivers face as children learn and navigate the boundaries of social distancing.

How do we reconcile the mixed messages our children may be getting about social distancing — and how do we talk to children who may be resisting the idea that they’re susceptible to Coronavirus?

Colorado Voices

Teens and Mental Health

How do we reconcile the mixed messages our children may be getting about social distancing

“It’s a very confusing time,” says Erin Wertheimer, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Registered Play Therapist Supervisor at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. “Right now, we’re all at risk for getting this virus. We want to make sure that physical distancing is happening to potentially decrease the amount of people who are getting this virus over time.”

“In order to help health care professionals manage their current case loads, and to help reduce a flood of people who might need assistance,” Erin says, “Talk with your child about how potentially, we might be walking around not having symptoms, but could be spreading the virus to others and not know it. Physically distancing could actually be saving lives.”

Yet we still have opportunities to be social, Erin says — and finding ways to do that is extremely important.

Erin recommends staying in touch with friends and family via the plethora of available social platforms, as well as utilizing video calls. She also encourages making connections throughout the day during regular activities, such as bringing your phone along and making a call while taking a walk.

“Even though we are practicing physically distancing, we’re not necessarily cutting out the social aspect. Yes, it might be different, and it might be a huge adjustment, however we don’t want to completely isolate ourselves.”

She says creativity is important as we experiment with modes of communication. And don’t underestimate the impact of connection.

“Have fun with it!” she says. “Even just ten minutes of connecting with someone else can be a much needed break.”

Erin recognizes that these “virtual” opportunities may not diminish cravings of in-person connection.

“It doesn’t take away from the wave of emotion, or those frustrations — just wanting to go outside, or just wanting to see your friend who lives down the street,” she says.

And each child will handle these challenges differently.

“Some may get quiet. Some may want to be on social media 24/7, or read a lot of books. Other may be more verbal. Some may try sneaking out, or engaging in at-risk behaviors.”

Erin says parents should ask about the underlying cause: What are their children really trying to communicate?

“Could it be their confusion around the situation? Their frustration? Opening up that conversation with your child is going to be so important.”

What’s more, many students are reeling from missed milestones they’ve anticipated their whole lives.

“Right now, we’re going through collective loss of what our ‘normal’ looked like, and the disappointment of potentially not having prom, or graduation — things we’ve really been looking forward to,” Erin says.

First, she says, it’s important to acknowledge the loss — and the achievement.

“You’re still graduating. And, let’s think about what we can do to celebrate,” she says, “and how we can make it special.”

She encourages families to think outside the box, and to use this time to explore new traditions.

Students may also be struggling with the idea that their work doesn’t matter, knowing they will not return to school this year.

Transitioning to online schooling, Erin says, especially mid-year, has been hard on students — and their families.

“There may have been teachers or peers that they’re used to seeing every day face to face, and maybe they didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to them in person,” she says. “So this is a huge loss.”

The importance of routine at this time, Erin says, is critical. Students and their parents should strive to make a weekly plan for completing schoolwork assignments. Pacing and balance are important.

“For example, completing thirty minutes of a subject, then playing outside for twenty minutes.”

“And choose your battles,” Erin says. Because this is a huge adjustment for everyone, she encourages parents to invest their energy wisely. “If a child agrees to thirty-five minutes of a subject, and only completes thirty… should we be fighting over those five minutes?”

Families in close quarters for an extended period of time, experiencing a wide range of emotions — it’s a set up for a potentially volatile situation.

“Now is a really great opportunity for whole families to really talk about their emotional state, and where they’re at,” she says. “Sometimes even showing our own personal experiences can help. For example, a parent can express that they are sad about a rescheduled or cancelled event.”

As adults, showing our own grief and disappointment in healthy ways is important, Erin says — as well as displaying healthy coping mechanisms. She encourages parents to model self care. Even just asking for five minutes to take a walk around the block can help show children that it’s okay to use different modes of working through emotions when they arise.

Erin says being a role model often means taking a step back.

“Each family has different resources available to them. And families may be learning different coping skills than what they’re used to,” Erin says. She encourages families to find time away from each other, and to communicate about when they need space.

“Number one, let’s be patient with ourselves,” says Erin. “We’re humans going through a time we haven’t been through before. Adjusting to change is hard. Some days may be easier than others. Let’s find compassion for what we’re experiencing in these moments.”


Maintaining a sense of safety, physical and emotional wellbeing, and staying connected are all important aspects of finding balance during difficulty. The University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus offers this COVID-19 Support Resource for Kids & Parents.

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