COVID-19, physical distancing and self-isolation: children’s feelings
Children might not fully understand physical distancing and self-isolation, but they’ll probably have many and mixed feelings about the experience.
For example, children might feel:
- confused about why everyone is at home
- sad or frustrated that they can’t see their friends, carers and extended family
- worried that someone they love will get sick
- upset by the stress or distress that you might be feeling
- overwhelmed by constant coverage of COVID-19 in the media.
Children will cope better if they have accurate, age-appropriate information about COVID-19, physical distancing and self-isolation. They also need plenty of opportunities to ask questions and talk about feelings. The steps below can help you talk through this situation with your preschooler or school-age child.
1. Make time to talk about COVID-19, physical distancing and self-isolation
Find the right time to talk with your child. This might be around the dinner table, at bath time, or at bedtime. When your child is ready to talk, try to give your child your full attention.
If you’re working from home, you might find that your child wants or needs to talk while you’re working. You won’t always be able to stop, and that’s OK. It’s fine to let your child know that you can’t listen right now. For example, ‘I’m talking to my workmates on Zoom – see? Can we talk after you’ve finished your puzzle?’ Just make sure to follow through later.
2. Use a calm and reassuring tone
If you use a calm, reassuring tone when you talk with your child about this situation, it can help your child feel safe and secure.
You might be feeling stressed or upset about the situation – that’s natural. If you can, try to take a few deep breaths before you talk. This can help you feel calmer.
3. Find out what your child knows about physical distancing and self-isolation
It’s a good idea to start by asking your child what they know about the situation and whether they have any questions. For example:
- ‘There are a lot of people talking about coronavirus. Do you know what that is?’
- ‘You’ve probably heard people talking about physical distancing. What do you think that means?'
- ‘You might have noticed that mum is working at home now. Do you know why that is?’
- ‘You won’t be going to school for a while, but some of your friends are still going. Do you understand why?’
- ‘We can’t go to swimming lessons at the moment. Do you know why?’
4. Explain physical distancing and self-isolation in a way your child understands
This is about sticking to the facts, focusing on the positives, reassuring your child that this situation won’t last forever, and explaining what your family can do to help. For example:
- ‘COVID-19 is a virus that makes people sick, a bit like when you get a nasty cold. It gets in your spit and snot, so it spreads easily if you sneeze or cough.’
- ‘Physical distancing means staying at home as much as we can. We can go out for a walk, if we stay a long way from other people – as far as the length of your bed.’
- ‘The good thing is that staying at home is a chance for us to spend more time together when we’re not doing our paid work or schoolwork. When we finish our work, we can go for a bike ride or a long walk together.’
- ‘We don’t know how long things will be like this. But it won’t be forever – we promise!’
- ‘If we stay at home and wash our hands all the time, we can protect ourselves. We’ll also be helping to stop the virus from getting to people who might get very sick.’
5. Tune into your child’s feelings about physical distancing and self-isolation
Some children might be OK with staying at home all the time. But some might be frightened, worried or upset.
Ask your child how they’re feeling and listen to what your child says. Let your child know that their feelings are OK. You can also ask your child what they need to feel better. It might reassure your child if you share your own feelings and let your child know what you’re doing to cope.
- ‘I know you’re disappointed because you can’t go to basketball right now. It’s OK to be disappointed, but we might both feel better if we do some exercise. How about we go outside and practise dribbling together?’
- ‘I know you’re sad that you can’t visit Granny at the moment. I am too. I feel happy when I see her face, so why don’t we video chat with her?’
- ‘It can be frustrating having everyone in the house together all the time. It’s natural to feel a bit cross. It’s important to use calm words to say how we feel, rather than shouting.’
We don’t know how long the COVID-19 pandemic and physical distancing will last, so you might need to check in occasionally with your child while the situation goes on.
And remember – if you’re all well, plenty of cuddles can help you all feel better.
It’s important to monitor how much media coverage about COVID-19 you and your child are seeing. It’s not helpful for anyone to hear distressing news over and over again. If you have the facts you need, it’s often best to switch off or switch to something else.
Children with disability, chronic health conditions or other additional needs
If your child has a disability, a chronic health condition or other additional needs, your child might be anxious about getting COVID-19 or getting sicker because of the virus. Children with additional needs are more likely than their peers to experience anxiety.
Talking can help children with additional needs who are experiencing anxiety about this situation, just as it can help children without additional needs. In particular, you can support your child with additional needs by acknowledging their worries or anxieties and listening actively when your child wants to talk. It’s also important to give your child developmentally appropriate information about how COVID-19 might affect them and their health condition. Without accurate information, children often imagine the worst.
It’s a good idea to seek advice from your GP or specialist about whether your child has a higher risk of getting COVID-19 and what extra precautions you and your child might need to take.
About physical distancing
Physical distancing is a way to slow the spread of COVID-19. COVID-19 spreads easily through sneezing, coughing and contact with infected people or objects.
The best way to do physical distancing is to stay at home as much as possible.
If you need to go out for essential items like groceries or medication, you should keep at least 1.5 m away from other people and limit your time in public.
Physical distancing is sometimes called social distancing.
By staying at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, you’re helping reduce your family’s risk of getting COVID-19. You’re also protecting your friends and your community.
Self-isolation is different from physical distancing. It’s when you stay at home and avoid close contact with other people for 10-14 days, depending on your state or territory. You must not leave the house or have any visitors.
The rules about who needs to self-isolate are changing all the time. If you need to self-isolate, your state or territory health service will contact you to tell you what you need to do during self-isolation to protect others from infection.
Australian, state and territory health department websites have the latest and most reliable information and advice about COVID-19, physical distancing and self-isolation. You can also call the Coronavirus Helpline on 1800 020 080 or Healthdirect on 1800 022 222. Or download the Australian Government’s Coronavirus Australia app.