It’s not easy to be a parent during a pandemic. Kids, teens, and adults will likely get confused about what’s allowed in public as authorities continue to change the rules based on public health needs in the pandemic.

Stores open last week might be closed next week. Parks might be open – but not for all the activities we previously enjoyed. Restaurants might welcome diners – but will have new diners’ policies. Local rules might be different a short drive away. And, taking care of bathroom needs out in public will be different.

Adults will eventually decide they are ready to take or send their kids out in public. Even if you think you won’t make that choice for a while, it’s not too soon to plan and practice your family’s safety strategies that can help make the experience more fun and less stressful.

For families, Kidpower offers these nine practical strategies to help adults to help kids feel more secure, safe, and confident going out in public during these changing times.

Stay in charge!
Kids are likely to forget – or be too young to understand – the new rules.

1. Stay calm and confident with kids - and get emotional support from other adults

It’s normal to feel confused, anxious, and stressed in these times. We might feel irritated with our government leaders, angry about the impact of rules on our lives, or scared about health risks. Getting help from other adults to support our own emotional safety and well-being helps us be calm, confident safety leaders for young people.

2. Stay in charge. Kids are likely to forget - or be too young to understand - the new rules

For example, kids may be accustomed to walking a few steps away from you in a store to look at a toy. Now, doing that might bring them too close to other people – who may have strong, upset reactions about the proximity.

Or, you and your child might have a habit of drifting slightly apart in the grocery store. Now if a person ends up stepping between you, getting back together while maintaining social distance from the other person might be more challenging.

Expect that you will need to stay more aware of your child’s location and avoid distractions such as checking your phone or getting involved in adult conversations. This could be hard to do at first, especially if you are hungry for missing connection with others.

3. Make safety plans focused on skills and behaviors, not on fears or worries

Practice and review Kidpower skills from the Kidpower 30-Skill Challenge – downloadable for FREE during the COVID-19 pandemic including Stay Together, so you are within reach of one another; Speak Up, including phrases like “Wait, I dropped my jacket,” or “Wait – I lost my mask,” or “Wait – I forgot my mask!”; and Check First before going into the store or leaving the store.

Practice questions for Speaking Up and Checking First if we’re not sure, like “When do I put my mask on?” and “Is it okay to take my mask off now?”

Add and change phrases to fit for your child’s age and life situation like, “Can I go look at those toys?” or, for an older child or teen, “I want to go look at those books – will that work right now? Where will we meet up again?”

4. Play 6-foot, 2-meter games at home using string, tape measures, or other silly props

It will be important to help kids get an understanding of what you mean by ‘social distance’.

Kids learn through play. Create games they enjoy that simply include ‘6 feet’, 2 meters, or ‘social distance’ – whichever term you want to use in your family. Use a standard measurement your child will experience. For example, with adults, it’s suggested that people be at least two arms’ lengths away. With a child, it might be 2-4 long strides.

The games themselves will be more fun if they don’t include lectures about ‘why’. Just make and enjoy 6-foot games so that, when you are making safety plans, you can say, “just like in our 6-foot game!”

Avoid making your games about losing, escaping, or getting hit, caught, or trapped. They will be more effective if they are more like puzzles. To create a ‘measurement tool’ for games, think about what is easy an inexpensive in your environment that you think would be good for your family. Your child might enjoy doing this with you! You might try making a 6-foot tube out of paper, cardboard tubes, or cardboard from boxes. In some places, a foam pool noodle might be available and affordable for you.

A game might include, “I am going to take little steps and wave the tube. Your job is a find a way over to the couch without me being able to tap you with it. You might need to change your plan! OH, great strategy, you changed direction!”

Another fun approach is to have your child hold one end of six-foot leash or rope and imagine they are a pet going for a walk. Have fun walking around and through spaces but each holding on to your end. If kids are old enough to hold on reliably in public, you could also choose to each hold on to an end out in the world if it helps you both feel more confident staying together.

5. Make new plans for restroom use in public

To avoid having anyone need to use a public restroom, make it a regular practice to have everyone use the bathroom before leaving home. Do plan for the fact that someone will still need to use a public restroom. See Kidpower’s article of making plans for public restrooms in ‘typical’ times – then consider this new situation.

Older kids can join in the brainstorming. Younger kids will benefit from your simply stating the plans clearly and confidently – and then practice the skills again before you leave home.

Consider plans for handwashing, taking masks on and off, touching handles, and using paper towels and dryers. As the adult in charge, you may decide that kids who used the restroom on their own before the pandemic might not have the same freedoms for now.

Stay calm and compassionate even if they are upset – and, be clear about your boundaries and consistent in upholding them. You might say something like, “I’m sorry you’re upset. I know you are able to go to the bathroom by yourself. However, during the pandemic/for right now, our family plan is for an adult to go with you.”

6. Practice how to get help in public with social distancing in mind

Standard Kidpower “getting help in public” practices for younger children often include coaching them to approach a storekeeper and possibly touch their arm while saying, “Please look at me. I need help.” Revise your practice with social distancing in mind.

Coach kids to approach but stand farther back. This will mean they will need to speak more forcefully, while still showing calm and confidence, in order to be noticed and get help.

To practice at home, pretend to be a store person and coach your child to stand at least 6 feet away from you – using that rope, leash, pool noodle, tape measure, or a 6-foot length of string so your child can start to get a more experiential sense of conversation at 6 feet/2 meters.

Coach them to say, “Excuse me, I need help.” Pretend to be busy and act a little difficult, such as by saying, “I’m busy. You’re not supposed to be here without an adult!” and immediately coach a confident reaction like, “I can’t find my adult. Please call for them.”

Young children can practice saying, “I am lost.”

Practice yelling “Dad!” and “Mom!” loudly, calmly, and confidently so your child can feel more confident yelling for you if they get separated. Remind them that while we don’t usually yell in places like stores, libraries, or offices, it’s ok to yell in any place if it’s about safety. Finding each other again when we are separated is about safety. A child might need to come close to an adult in order to get help because the rules might be different in emergencies.

7. Practice setting boundaries and managing personal space on walks in your neighborhood

Include plans about bikes and dogs. Co-pilot kids and teens to support their age-appropriate skills for independence in these times.

To support independence for older kids, practice Thinking First Before Talking. If they are walking the dog, playing with siblings, or using a bike, plan for situations that could come up such as another dog or person approaching the dog, asking about the bike, inviting them to join a game down the street, and so on.

8. Practice just as much with your older kids who already had experience going out on their own before the pandemic

Do not assume your older children and teens will automatically know how to manage changes in the COVID-19 time. Co-pilot by walking with them – not testing them, but rather working and strategizing together – to explore how social distancing might change their previous habits. Reinforce the reasons why behind this – kids are going to be seeing a lot of examples of others not practicing social distancing.

A certain path to the store might now be harder to walk while maintaining social distancing; another path might no longer have open stores for getting help in public. Plan and practice together until you are confident you and your child have the same plan in mind for what you want them to do in different situations.

One young teen was irritated and asked their parent, “Why do you have to go with me to the ice cream store now? I went by myself or with my friends before!” The parent responded, “Many things have changed. In order to start to enjoy some of the things we did before the pandemic, we all need to know what the rules are – including adults. So, we are all going to go together for now.”

9. Plan for the fact that that people may be more crabby, easily irritated, or quick to anger

Practice ways to stay in charge of your family and give clear, confident directions about what you want them to do in the moment. Your safety leadership skills can include leaving while coaching your family, such as by saying, “Let’s head out now. We can leave the cart there. It’s okay – we’ll come back in a little bit!” or “We’ll get what we needed at a different store. It’s more important to be in a place where people are acting safely.”

Be prepared to intervene calmly, confidently, and kindly if someone is directing upsetting behaviors at your family member. You might smile, wrap your arm around your child, and guide them away while confidently saying to the upset person, “You’re right! I understand why you are upset. My mistake! We’ll move. Take care!”

You can remind your family members that the goal is not to win arguments or to ‘be right’ – our goal is to be safe and to have more fun and fewer problems.

As situations change, kids will keep learning what is and is not safe through your leadership. Be ready and available to be a safety leader for your older kids and teens, too. Dealing with upset adults can be hard – even for other adults! – and giving guidance and help in these difficult situations can prevent trouble from escalating or becoming more upsetting for young people.

Safety plans can help us maximize the joy and minimize the risk of going out in public in this time. Instead of worrying, take control by making safety planning a regular part of your life. Practice, revisit, and revise the skills in your safety plan even more often than you would in ‘typical’ times. Using this strategy can help your family have more fun and fewer problems while making the most of life’s opportunities during the pandemic.

We encourage you to follow your State, County and Country’s pandemic guidelines and regulations at all times to ensure you are complying with laws and regulations.

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Published: May 28, 2020   |   Last Updated: May 28, 2020

Erika Leonard manages our California center, trains and mentors instructors, and is a Kidpower Senior Program Leader.