Coronavirus: John Sharry on how to explain the need for social distancing to young children

With Covid-19, the key is to show children how they are helping others by their actions

Question: During this coronavirus crisis, I am struggling with getting my children to understand the need for social distancing. We are all stuck at home together and they can't understand why they can't go out more, etc. My four-year-old girl says she misses visiting her Nana (who has COPD – chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – and is in self-isolation) and my six-year-old really misses football with his friends – this was his life. I want to explain why all the changes are necessary without scaring them. My six-year-old can be a bit of a worrier and I don't want to add to this.

Answer: The Covid-19 crisis has come upon us really quickly. With schools off and families in self-isolation, our lives have utterly changed and become much more restrictive. It is understandable that children are confused and unsure about what is happening. All they initially might see is losses and new rules that are restricting them

Getting young children on board

One of the positives in the Covid-19 crisis is how society has galvanised in a collective effort to defeat the virus. Once people understand how important social distancing is to stop the spread and to protect the vulnerable, they collectively agree to serious restrictions on their personal freedoms.


Unimaginable even ten days ago, society has acquiesced to the closing of pubs and restaurants (indeed there was grassroots pressure for this to happen). The key was everyone trusted the messaging and leadership – they knew what had to do done.

Young children are no different than adults in this regard. Once they understand why something needs to done and once you explain the positive reason to help others, you will be surprised at how motivated they might become

Use child-centred language

In talking to young children it is important to take time to explain the message using concrete child-centred language that they understand.

For example, to explain why your four-year-old can’t visit Nana you might say: “There is a virus, called Covid19, that makes old people very sick. Children can carry Covid19 but not know they have it. So we can’t visit Nana in case we give her the virus. The good news is that we can talk to her and see her on the phone. She misses you very much and loves when you show her pictures or when you read your books together over the phone at bedtime”.

The key is to show children how they are helping others by their actions. You are showing how your daughter can protect Nana and also be kind to her by keeping in touch.

You can also use pictures or drawings to your children to explain how the virus spreads and importance of washing hands and social distancing. There are also many children’s picture books just published online to explain all about the virus that you might be able to read together

Use a positive tone

Parents are often worried that difficult facts might scare children. In reality, it is how things are explained rather than the facts that scare children the most.

Think of the different messages you have received about Covid and how these have made you feel. In Ireland we have been fortunate to have clear, calm and concise messaging from our experts and leaders in recent days (contrast that with some of the international media outlets and leaders).

Once again children are no different than adults. Vague, inconsistent and confusing answers from anxious parents make for anxious children. When you are talking to your children, think through what you want to say so you can be calm and clear about what they have to do.

The conversations don’t always have to be serious and a bit of humour and fun can help. You can have fun learning how to wash hands by having a competition to see who does it the best or you can make a game practicing foot taps as a way of greeting and you can even make a drawing or write a story with your children on the heroic campaign to defeat the evil Covid-19!

Focus on alternatives

While there are many new restrictions and rules in your children’s lives, there are also new opportunities and alternatives. As already discussed you can use video calls to help your children stay in touch with Nana. You can also help your son learn to play socially distant football with one or two friends in the park. You can set up the game whereby each player has to stay two metres apart and pass the ball after two touches – I am sure you and your son can think of lots of creative variations.

There may also be new opportunities within the new rules that you have not had the time and space to take up before. Perhaps there is now time to complete that jigsaw, take out those board games or even help your children learn to cook, when there was never this time before.