Family Distancing: Importance and Psychological Effects

Distancing from family members may become necessary. Here's how to handle it.

Posted Mar 27, 2020

Right now there is a lot of talk about social distancing, which is our number one defense against the pandemic at the moment, and will continue to be until we have a cure or a vaccine that can be distributed to everyone. However, the type of social distancing being recommended completely ignores the most common social gatherings of all; those that occur every day inside households.

It is typical for households to have anywhere from 3-5 people, and while many have less, many also have more. If every person who catches the Coronavirus spreads it only to those they live with, we are still talking about a massive source of exponential growth. If family members do nothing to distance themselves from the infected, the potentially-infected (displays symptoms), or high-risk members (healthcare workers, for example), then it is almost guaranteed that if one contracts it, so will the whole family.

While family distancing may sound extreme at first, a bit of reasoning reveals it to be just as logical and necessary as social distancing. Not only could it stop one person from directly infecting multiple people, who can then infect multiple others, it will ensure that each family unit has at least one person who can do essential errands without contributing to further spread. This healthy member is needed for such things as getting groceries, cleaning supplies, prescription drugs or medicine for symptom relief, and checking on vulnerable and isolated extended family members, like grandparents or senior aunts and uncles. If family distancing is not practiced by everyone in households with high-risk members, any contact between any family member and grandparents could be lethal. Any households with infants present the same danger; if a high-risk family member is not isolated from very small children, the effects could be lethal. Of course, since symptoms often have a slow onset, it may be too late for some of these measures to be effective. However, just because there was contact no family should assume it has been spread to other or all members. We often have to work or go to school with people who have some kind of sickness, and we do not always catch it, for various reasons. The point is that until we get a better idea of the prevalence of this virus, it is better to err on the side of caution.

In light of these facts, there should be a conscious effort among medical professionals, influencers, and every person with a social media account to encourage others to practice #familydistancing in all those cases where it makes sense, like the ones described above. It is just one more effective practice we can implement to try and “flatten the curve.” That being said, just like social distancing, family distancing will have negative effects on mental health if the proper precautions aren’t taken. To ensure that the problems caused by the solution are not collectively worse than the initial problem, we need to think about the unintended psychological effects, and how to mitigate them.

Social and especially familial isolation can cause or worsen anxiety and depression. In uncertain times like these, physical touch can provide comfort that reduces these ailments. So when touching is potentially dangerous, emotional support through other means must compensate for the lack of physical support. Many of us are using apps like Facetime, Skype, and Zoom to chat with friends face-to-face, and it is undoubtedly helping. For parents showing symptoms, or who are nurses or doctors and have to come in contact with Coronavirus patients every week or every day, home isolation from children and grandparents is probably a wise idea—but this does not mean that the family member must become invisible. These same chat technologies can be used to allow kids to constantly talk face-to-face with the parent holed up in the next room. It may feel silly to be Skyping with someone you can hear through the wall, but the emotional support that comes from the face-to-face interaction can save a family member on either side from falling into a depression or a sustained state of panic and anxiety.

If a spouse is showing symptoms, or is on the front lines of healthcare in the war against this deadly virus, asking them to self-quarantine can be perceived as a cold and uncaring request. No matter how logical a plea it may be, we are all human, and we are often driven by emotion more than logic. Feeling abandoned can hurt worse than a virus, and no one is immune to that psychological pain. For this reason, extra care must be taken to thoroughly explain to family members why taking such precautions is an act of love, not abandonment.

It is a scary and uncertain time, but we will get through this, and come out more prepared, informed, compassionate, and more united than ever before. But to defeat this existential threat, everyone has to play their part. By committing to efforts like family distancing, it may seem like we are overreacting, but this is the one case where overreacting individually is what will save us collectively. The psychological effects of distancing ourselves from our loved ones can potentially be as damaging as the virus itself, but if we can use our clever technologies to actually become closer as we become more distant, then we will be defeating a lot more than a pandemic.