After months of keeping your child under your close watch, school starting again means you suddenly won’t be around to enforce social distancing, mask-wearing, hand-washing, and all of the other known ways of preventing the spread of COVID-19. It also means you won’t be there to intervene if someone else isn’t being as safe as your child.
Letting your child out of your sight while the threat of COVID-19 is still out there can be anxiety-provoking, but experts say you can prepare your child for awkward situations around the virus that they may encounter out in the real world. After all, while your family may be incredibly careful about trying to prevent the spread of COVID-19, not everyone else is—and your child doesn’t automatically know how to react when another kid gets too close or tries to do something that’s decidedly not safe these days, like drink from your child’s water bottle.
“Like most new situations, it is extremely important to prepare ahead of time,” says Jason Lewis, Ph.D., a psychologist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Preparing for these moments in advance can lower worry levels for both you and your child, and allows you both to think about ways to respond in potentially awkward situations, he says.
Adam Barsella, M.D., a pediatrician at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital, agrees. “It is important to prepare them for the reality that people deal with hard times in different ways and that the way their family is dealing with something might not look exactly the same way another family is dealing with something,” he says.
While this can feel like uncharted territory, “this isn’t any different than talking about other types of conflict resolution,” points out Patricia Garcia, M.D., a pediatrician at Connecticut Children’s.
Of course, there’s a wide range of potentially awkward situations that your child could face out in public and it’s impossible to go over them all. But experts say preparing them for some of the more common ones will help give your child the framework to deal with ones you don’t directly address.
No matter what, Garcia says it’s important to remind your child to stay calm. “Children have been living with uncertainty for many months. Their routines have been completely upended and there is no timeline for return to their normal lives,” she says. “It’s important to know that all these events will provoke an emotional response and parents need to be prepared to deal with that and to help their children understand and respond to their emotions.”
With that in mind, here are some more common awkward situations your child may face as they go back to school, and the best ways for them to respond.
Awkward Situation #1: Someone asks to share their water bottle
While it’s never exactly been recommended that kids swap water bottles, it was a little less risky in pre-COVID times. Going over this situation with your child also involves explaining why it’s not a good idea to share water bottles these days, Barsella says. He recommends this approach: “Viruses and other germs spread easily through contact with the things we use to eat and drink as well as the things we touch. Though it is a kind idea to share, when we are trying to be safe, it is a good idea for everyone to only use their own water bottle, fork, spoon, plate, and toys.”
As for how your child should respond, it depends on their age, says Parker Huston, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Younger children are very rules-oriented, he says, and simply stating, “My mom and dad said we can’t share water bottles right now” should shut down the issue. “With young kids, there’s not a lot of social awkwardness related to following the rules,” he says.
But stating that something is off-limits doesn’t fly as well with older kids, who are more prone to question rules, Huston says. He recommends talking with your child about how they think they should respond and guiding them from there. “They have to develop their own voice and how they’ll respond but, as parents, we need to provide education and guidance,” Huston explains.
Overall, Garcia recommends telling your child to “politely say no.” And, if someone still drinks from their water bottle—accidentally or without asking—let your child know that it’s OK, but that they shouldn’t drink from that bottle again, she says. “If it is a reusable bottle, have the child throw it out,” Garcia says. “Consider adding extra money to their lunch card so they can buy extra water when needed. Or send back up water.”
Awkward Situation #2: A classmate wants to have a playdate
This is a tricky concept to grasp, even for adults. Even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that children have in-person learning, the organization also says that parents should “limit” exposure to other children. “Exposure to additional children and adults outside of daycare or school should be managed to decrease risk,” the CDC says online.
The CDC breaks playdates down into risk levels:
- Lowest risk: No in-person playdates. Instead, children connect through phone calls and video chats.
- Medium risk: Infrequent playdates with the same family or friend who is also practicing methods to stop the spread of COVID-19. Children should stay six feet apart and playdates should be held outdoors, if possible.
- Highest risk: Frequent indoor playdates without social distancing with multiple friends and families who are not practicing methods to stop the spread of COVID-19.
It can be tough to explain to your child why they can see a friend in school, but not have a playdate outside of school, but Huston recommends pointing out to them that there is more regulation at school and that school is necessary, but playdates aren’t. “For playdates, I have been telling parents to reiterate that even if everyone feels well, it’s important to keep our distance to help stop COVID from spreading,” Garcia says. “We need to expect that children are not going to be happy about this—and that they are going to have a hard time separating the difference between school and playdates. That’s OK.”
If someone asks your child for a playdate, Huston recommends that they respond by saying they’ll have to ask their parents. Then, you can take over and politely turn down the invitation.
Awkward Situation #3: They’re invited to an indoor party with no masks or social distancing
Again, it can be tricky to explain to your child why other people think it’s OK to have an indoor party with no COVID-19 prevention strategies while you don’t. Barsella suggests comparing it to stinky socks. “Mention how viruses can be trapped in a room and are more likely to affect you, just like stinky clothes smell gets trapped in a room,” he says. “If you were to take the stinky clothes outside, you wouldn’t smell them as much unless you stood right next to them.”
As for how your child should respond, Huston acknowledges that you don’t want it to seem like your child is passing judgment on another family. Instead, he says, just have your child be honest and say, “I’d love to come, but I can’t go” or “My mom and dad aren’t letting me go.”
Awkward Situation #4: Someone isn’t keeping their distance
For all the talk about staying six feet apart, some people just don’t do it. If another child won’t stay spread out from your child, Lewis recommends having them try to keep their distance or go stand closer to an adult.
“In these situations where another person is doing something that is infringing upon the child’s safety, parents should encourage their children to assert themselves and ask the other person to stop, as long as it is safe to do so,” Lewis says. “Otherwise, parents should encourage their children to remove themselves from the situation if they are able to do so and inform an adult what has happened.”
Awkward Situation #5: Someone tries to mess with their mask
Garcia recommends telling your child that, if possible, they remove themselves from the situation or stand closer to an adult. “These are situations where increased supervision is important, especially during recess or gym,” she says. If that doesn’t work, Huston says your child should tell an adult what’s happening and ask them to intervene.
Garcia also recommends being prepared in advance that this may happen. “Your child should have extra masks,” she says. “This is a good time to switch masks.”
Awkward Situation #6: Another person isn’t wearing their mask correctly
This is a potentially hot-button topic, Barsella says. “Different people respond differently to difficult situations,” he says. “Correcting others on how they are wearing their mask should be innocent enough, but unfortunately, they may get stronger responses than would be appropriate for a child.”
If your child notices that someone isn’t wearing their mask correctly, Lewis says it’s best to encourage them to remove themselves from the situation, if they can. And, if that’s not possible, they should talk to an adult in charge.
Experts admit that navigating some of these situations can be difficult, even for adults. But keeping an open dialogue with your child, and preparing them for awkward situations they may experience, can go a long way toward helping. “Have these conversations with your child,” Huston says. “They’re important.”
Photo: Getty Images