How to cope as COVID-19 imposes social distancing

As schools close and communities lock down, we provide tips to cope

girl looking out window

During the COVID-19 pandemic, school closures and other shutdowns have sent students home. In this era of social distancing, experts offer tips on how to manage feelings of stress and isolation.

fizkes/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Caleigh Stanier won’t be going to the Mock Trial State Championship that her team qualified for. This 17-year-old junior at Iowa City High School also won’t appear in her school musical in April. Her situation probably sounds familiar. The coronavirus pandemic has prompted schools across the world to close, sports to shut down and extra-curricular activities to cease. 

People are being asked to maintain more than a cough’s distance from each other. This so-called social distancing is meant to slow the spread of COVID-19. But it’s also changing how kids can interact — and greatly curtailing their activities. 

Caleigh Stanier
The COVID-19 pandemic sidelined Caleigh Stanier from a school musical and more this spring. This has left the Iowa City High School junior both disappointed and worried.C. Stanier

“I think I’m probably the most worried out of all my friends,” Caleigh says. “I think mostly it’s just disappointment — all the things we’ve worked for, with national and state champs now canceled. But that’s just what has to happen.” 

News about the pandemic seems to have taken over every website, social media app and television station. Kids understandably have a lot of questions about all of this. Sometimes, those questions turn into deeper concerns, worries or even anxiety. 

Keep in mind, that’s totally normal, psychologists say. And it’s mostly a good thing.

Also, you’re not alone. Science News for Students talked to lots of kids around the country. Many share the same concerns. Topping their list? Missing out on trips and activities, and fear of grandparents falling ill. 

“Anxiety is normal and helpful,” says Amy Lee. She’s a psychologist at the Center for Pediatric Behavioral Health at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. COVID-19 is a novel disease that’s causing novel changes to how society is beginning to interact (or not). As such, she says, “It’s OK to feel more anxious about this. It’s something we should be more alert about, more aware, more careful and more thoughtful.” In fact, she says, “Letting ourselves stay a little uncomfortable can be a positive way to cope with uncertainty.” 

Third-grader Elizabeth Bullock, 8, who goes to PS 163 in New York City, is doing a good job of that. “Nobody is really scared or worried. We’re just talking about it a lot,” she says. “And you should try not to touch things that people could have touched. And wash your hands a lot.” 

The vibe in high school is similar, says Helen Branson, a 16-year-old sophomore at Los Altos High School in California. “A lot of the adults are really freaked out about it. We are less worried because we aren’t worried about getting sick ourselves, but we are definitely more worried than we were” before her school shut down.

Helen Branson
Helen Branson playing water polo for her high school team in California before COVID-19 canceled the season. Compared to adults’ concerns about the pandemic, she says of teens: ”We are less worried because we aren’t worried about getting sick ourselves.”Ken Branson

Concerns and anxiety can sometimes tip into the unhelpful range, however, when your mind exaggerates a threat, explains Lee, the psychologist. 

Signs that your worry may be the unhelpful sort include not being able to “turn the worries off,” says Stephen Whiteside. He’s a psychologist who specializes in treating childhood anxiety at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. When someone tells a story about the coronavirus, it’s normal to feel nervous. But it’s not healthy if you can’t stop thinking about it while FaceTiming a friend or if you can’t enjoy the conversation. When you find this happening, tell a trusted adult — such as a parent, grandparent or teacher — how you’re feeling. 

You can also use these tips from psychologists to prevent too much anxiety: 

Allow yourself to smile

“Humor is a coping mechanism for all of us — kids and adults,” says Whiteside. But, he adds, “Like most things, humor is healthy in moderation … And there are also times when it’s not appropriate. And there are jokes that cross the line.”

Every kid we talked to said there is plenty of joking going on with friends and on social media. As ninth-grader Anna (who asked not to give her last name) from Wayne, Penn., says, “We’re kind of nervous, but we’re making jokes.” Corona-style elbow bump, anyone? 

Focus on the positive

This recommendation may be a bit more challenging, but you can think of it as choosing what to focus on. “Being flexible in what we think about is important,” Lee says. “Focus on friends, activities and family that make you feel positive and connected. Notice what else is positive in your life. Take time with friends and family.” 

Maintain a routine

“We all benefit from routine, doing things we normally do,” Whiteside points out. If your school has closed, make a daily schedule similar to what you do at school — and don’t forget to budget time for recess and lunch! 

Limit media

“It’s important to get news from a trusted source regularly,” says Whiteside. “But it’s also not helpful to read every single story you can.” Phones and other screens are tempting, but overdoing it can be like overindulging in junk food. 

So make a pact with your friends to put your screens away during certain times of the day, Lee suggests. Or put your device in a different room. Caleigh Stanier, from Iowa City, turned off Twitter notifications, for instance, when she realized the tweets were leaving her anxious.

Enjoy your friends, just virtually

As government officials advise sheltering in place, you might start to go stir-crazy. But you don’t have to give up chatting or playing games with friends. Just do it from the disinfected confines of your home. You still have phones to carry on true audible conversations and can use apps to see your friends and family as you connect through the internet or Wi-Fi.

Elizabeth Bullock
Exercise remains important, even during periods of social distancing. Here, Elizabeth Bullock shows how that’s done in her New York City neighborhood. Gregory Bullock

Get active

There are lots of safe ways you can be active and enjoy physical activity. You don’t have to be in a gym or ball court. If it’s safe to be outside, ask your parents about going for a hike or bike ride. If you’re looking for indoor activities, think about streaming a yoga class or finding a jump rope. You can even run up and down your stairs (time yourself to compete against a family member). I live in Minnesota, and my kids plan to jump into a nearby lake as soon as the ice melts! 

Reinforce good hygiene with family members

By now, everyone should know what they are “supposed” to do. The next step is to make sure you wash your hands every time you come indoors or touch mail or packages delivered to the door. This may not become a habit right away. So when you see someone else forgetting to clean the door handles, cough into an elbow or wipe down the remote, gently remind them what they should do — and help get the materials they need. And don’t take offense if they catch you slipping up now and again. Knowing we’re all in this together makes it easier.

The good news? As a kid, the information you need to protect yourself and your family is pretty simple: Stay healthy and keep your hands clean, Lee says. If a kid does test positive for the novel coronavirus, adults (including doctors, parents and teachers) will make sure they’re safe, and that other adults are safe. It’s good to keep that advice in mind even if the coronavirus starts interfering with your daily life. 

And such super-cautious hygiene works. People who go into anxiety-provoking settings for a living have learned how to remain calm in such situations. Take science and medical journalist Laurie Garrett. She interviewed people infected with SARS in China and Hong Kong earlier this century. But she says she didn’t worry about getting sick, because she knew what steps she needed to protect herself

Accept that conditions may change rapidly

Sixteen-year-old Clara Chaplin recently took a school trip to Italy. While traveling, she didn’t know that the coronavirus outbreak was spreading rapidly throughout that nation. 

Explains Clara, “Most of the time we were there, I really hadn’t even thought about the possibility of there being coronavirus. I saw people wearing masks in the airports and thought it was a little ridiculous, honestly.” 

She was surprised when officials took every passenger’s temperature upon arriving at the Florence airport.“It wasn’t until the end of the trip when there was first news about cases in Milan. And we hadn’t been anywhere near Milan. So still no one was really worried.”

Back at Bethlehem Central High School in New York, other students and teachers made jokes about coronavirus to the returning students. Still, Clara recalls, “No one was really taking it seriously.” This was all before there were any confirmed cases in New York.

But as the cases in her state started mounting, she suddenly thought: “What if we’re the ones who brought this virus into New York?” 

It’s now about three weeks since they returned home, and Clara says, “It seems like coronavirus is everywhere. All week there has been nonstop talk about it at school, and now school has been canceled.” 

She and her friends have a lot of mixed feelings about it. “Some of my friends who had just begun their spring sports seasons are upset because now [their sports] are postponed for at least a month,” she says, “and might be canceled altogether.” Most of her friends admit “that this whole situation doesn’t even feel real. It’s like the whole world is shutting down.” In many ways, it is. 

“It’s weird to think that we’re living through such a crisis,” she says, “something that our kids might learn about in their history class. It was kind of just a joke for a while. But now that it really is close to us, and there are confirmed cases in nearby schools, it’s definitely kicked in that this is serious. And I’m glad that we’re taking a lot of precautions.”

So is Caleigh Stanier, from Iowa City. She says the fast-brewing pandemic has prompted her to do some deep thinking about the future and the way we live. The world has become very interconnected, she notes. And humanity just keeps “expanding into areas that were once wilderness and interacting with new pathogens.” This could continue to happen, opening us up to a succession of new, potentially lethal diseases. What’s more, she says, “It shows everything that is weak in our global healthcare system. And I really hope that people can learn from this.”

More Stories from Science News Explores on Psychology