Family, Kids & Relationships

3-Step “Going Out” Guide: How To Help Kids Feel Good About Restricted Socializing During the Pandemic

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During the pandemic, parents are dealing with job loss and financial insecurity, health anxiety, uncertainty about what school will look like for their kids, and countless other sources of stress. But many agree that one of the most difficult parts has been managing their kids’ expectations as things begin to open up and kids start to see their friends socializing again, either on social media or in the neighborhood. 

After being cooped up and isolated for so long, it’s understandable that they want to go out and join their peers. Yet many parents remain wary of opening their carefully protected pod too early, since one mistake can undo months of being careful. That’s especially top of mind in homes where there are high-risk, immunocompromised individuals, like mine.

It feels like a constant battle as the invitations and requests come rolling in, especially if your kids’ friends may not have been particularly responsible about socially distancing (or if you just can’t be sure either way). So parents are left with two undesirable choices: Keep saying “no” and worrying that their kids will suffer from the mental health issues associated with prolonged quarantine, or start saying “yes” and accept that their family will be at increased risk. So what’s a parent to do?

The secret may lie in changing your perspective. Here’s a 3-step plan that can help you come to an agreement about socializing during the pandemic that makes everyone happy.

Explain why the “old normal” isn’t possible.

While there are definitely safe ways for kids to socialize, in many cases even in person, it’s natural for kids to want to do the things they used to do—go to parties, have sleepovers or playdates with lots of different friends, hang out at the mall on a busy Saturday, go to the movies—even though those things are off the table for most of us now.

At this point most kids understand why those things aren’t 100 percent safe, and they know what we should all be doing to mitigate risk in social situations (stay 6 feet apart, don’t touch your face, wear a mask). However, they may not have thought about what those interactions would look like in real life. Help them understand how tricky physically distancing can be (especially for kids) by brainstorming things that might happen, and talk about how they would react in each situation.

For example, my teenage daughter recently asked me if she could go to a friend’s get-together at a lake. It seemed like a pretty simple request, especially since it would be outdoors—but she started to understand how complicated it really was when we tried this brainstorming exercise. What would happen if her friends all wanted to get some snacks, but the food was set up on a table that all the adults were gathered around (a scenario that I knew would be likely)? Would she hang back and avoid the table? Would she just not eat anything? What if her friends wanted to take a bunch of selfies together (another scenario that was sure to come up)? Would she honestly feel comfortable telling them no, and waiting while they all took pics together without her? What if her friend’s sister ran up for a hug, or her mom asked her to come inside for a tour of the house? Would she be willing to decline, even if she felt like she was being rude, or if they teased her for being “paranoid?”

When you break it down that way, it’s easier for your child to see that social distancing is easy in theory—but not always as simple in reality.

Acknowledge that this is so, so hard.

While it might seem obvious to parents that we’d love to let our kids go back to their normal routines, it isn’t always obvious to them. Reassure them that you wish they could do all the things they want to, and remind them that you guys are on the same side. Let them know that you understand what a big deal this is to them. Use what experts call “radical genuineness”—this is the highest level of validating someone’s feelings, and involves showing how deeply you understand the stresses they’re under by describing them back to them. Tell them that even though you can’t fully understand their feelings (because you’ve never been in a position like this at their age), you do understand how awful it is to have your life turned upside down.

You might also try explaining that part of your reason for saying no is for their own benefit. If there’s any possibility that my daughter could have made someone seriously ill after going to the lake, she never would have forgiven herself. I didn’t feel like it was fair to put that responsibility on her shoulders at age 15, especially when it would be so natural (and age-appropriate) for her to take those selfies. Kids lack the life experience needed to accurately calculate risk, plus there’s the fact that the brain doesn’t develop executive function—which controls planning and self control—until age 26. It’s not that I don’t trust my daughter, because I absolutely do—but it might not be reasonable (or fair) for me to expect her to go against every developmental and social impulse in her brain.

Come up with alternatives.

This is where changing perspectives comes in. Just because our kids can’t do what they want, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing they can do. Help them create a list of activities you’ll say “yes” to (at least most of the time). That way, they can reach out to friends they miss with ideas for viable get-togethers, or have alternatives on hand if they need to turn down an invitation. This has the added benefit of giving them some control over the situation, which is a huge mental health boost after months of uncertainty and disappointment. 

It’s great if you can get creative and go beyond walks and bike rides, since they may have already grown a little tired of those options. Some of our approved activities were: hosting a picnic (where they’d sit at least 6 feet apart), having a backyard sleepover with one friend (where they’d each have their own small tent or well-spaced sleeping bags), meeting a friend to watch the sunset at a nearby field, and flying kites at a local park. After working on the list, she went from upset about the lake to excited about the new possibilities.

The pandemic is forcing families to deal with countless challenges, and in the grand scheme of things a party or trip to the movies might seem trivial—but they’re a huge deal to our kids. By working together, talking through challenges, and coming up with new options, your family can find a way to get in some social contact in a way that’s safe enough that you feel comfortable, too.

Robyn is Editor-in-Chief at ParentsTogether and is co-author of several NYTimes bestselling anthologies. She lives in southern Michigan with her husband and five children.