Personal Bubble

Happy child in a bubble, reaching their arms out. Text reads "what is a personal bubble"

Personal Bubble

Don’t you wish sometimes you were surrounded by an actual personal bubble?  Maybe you need an imaginary boundary to offer a comfortable distance from others. If you’ve ever needed personal space, then you know the feeling! Kind of like those (affiliate link) inflatable orbs that people roll around in. If you are a mom, a pediatric therapist, caregiver to tiny humans, or work with anyone under the age of 18, you get this.  In this post you will learn what a personal bubble is, why you need one, why you don’t have one, and how to get one.

personal bubble

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What is a Personal Bubble?

A personal bubble is another phrase to help us visualize the personal space needed to feel comfortable among other individuals or other objects. A personal bubble space is just that: an space that is needed to feel comfortable. If another person invades your personal bubble, they get too close for comfort. If you are in a crowded space, your bubble may be smaller and you may feel the effects of claustrophobia (at some level).

This imaginary bubble space is the “safe space”.

Other names for a personal bubble include:

  • safe space
  • personal space
  • comfort zone
  • social distance
  • safe zone
  • bubble of privacy
  • invisible fence
  • area of personal discretion
  • zone of personal boundaries

How big is a personal bubble?

Your personal bubble space is often dependent on where you are and who you are interacting with.

There are four zones of personal space people in the United States use:

  1. Intimate space 0-18 inches for hugging or whispering
  2. Personal space 18 inches to four feet – used for interactions with family and good friends
  3. Social space four to ten feet for interactions between acquaintances
  4. Public space 10 or more feet. Used for public speaking

These zones will differ depending on cultural norms.

Coronavirus and the Personal Bubble

COVID was a wake up call for people’s lack of a personal bubble. Staying six feet apart was challenging in many circumstances.  Standing six feet apart in lines made for huge lines of people. 

Sitting six feet apart in restaurants meant a lot of reconfiguring. Airplanes, Taxi’s, doctor’s offices, waiting areas, buses, and many other locations either had to be shut down or modified. 

For the sensory avoiders such as myself, this was a welcomed change.  No more pushing and shoving.  No one sitting right next to me.  At last, a six foot bubble around me! 

Unfortunately this did not last forever.  We are back to being crowded into lines, concert stadiums, theaters, classrooms, shops, and many other places you choose to visit. 

Choose is the optimal word, as you never actually have to leave your home, thanks to working from home, meal deliveries, internet shopping, virtual doctor visits, and virtual reality travel. 

Some people have embraced this new lifestyle of staying home, while others could not wait to get out and mingle again.

Why is a personal bubble important?

We all have some level of comfort when it comes to personal space between other individuals.

  • Personal space is important for interpersonal relations and communication.  Young children and puppies have no idea about personal space!
  • A personal bubble is also important for safety and comfort.  If someone invades your personal space, it can feel uncomfortable. Children need to learn about stranger danger, by understanding if someone gets in their personal bubble it should make them feel uncomfortable. 
  • Your personal space is your right to privacy, and certain parts of your body should not be touched unsolicited. My girls learned a rhyme in elementary school: “Don’t touch me there, that is my no no square”.  This was a demonstration in teaching students about where it is appropriate (or not) to be touched. The fact that I remember it 20 years later shows how powerful this imagery was.
  • Children learn when and how to touch people in their personal bubble.  Do you grab someone by the arm, or gently tap them to get their attention?  Do you wave to, or bear hug a stranger?
  • People with sensory processing disorder can have difficulty with this personal bubble.  Sensory avoiders might have a very small bubble, feeling very uncomfortable when touched unexpectedly or spoken to at close range.  Sensory seekers have a larger bubble with very little borders

Why do some people struggle with their personal bubble?

Some people struggle in crowded hallways, busy city streets, or in full elevators. For others, these crowded spaces don’t seem to matter. Everyone’s level of personal comfort may be different.

People who have deficits in proprioception, body awareness, and interpreting social cues may have difficulty developing and maintaining their personal bubble.

You might see these in the classroom, other other places people gather:

  • Lack of social skills
  • Not keeping their hands to themselves
  • Sitting too close to others
  • Bumping into people
  • The close talker
  • Hugging others who do not want to be hugged, or without asking first
  • Standing too close in line. This resource on standing in line and waiting in line offers support for kids that struggle with this.
  • Not reading the non verbal cues of others (discomfort, backing away, not wanting to be around this person)
  • Have difficulty making and/or keeping friends

People with difficulty with body awareness literally do not know where their body is in space. They might feel like there is a six foot gap between them and their peers, when it is really six inches.

Proprioceptive difficulties can mean a person does not have the right feedback to their muscles and joints.  They honestly believe they were just giving a light hug, or petting gently.

Learners with social difficulties may not understand why they are not picked for a group, can’t make friends, or are not invited to the parties. 

Young children learn about their personal space through instruction, watching others, experimentation, and practice.  Adults who do not have a personal bubble might not have someone to give them this feedback, or might not have been taught this as a young child. 

They likely struggle with sensory processing difficulties, have not been made aware of this, or have not worked on developing these skills.

How to teach personal bubble space

Now that you know why this personal bubble is important, how do you get one, or teach others to get their own?

The first step is to investigate and gather data about your learner’s personal bubble.

Do they lack respect for others’ personal space during free time but not during academic time? Perhaps they have trouble mostly during physical education and recess? Do they have extreme emotional responses when someone does not respect their personal space?  By clearly identifying when, where and how the problem occurs can help to determine what interventions to try.

  • Use concrete examples – the “no no” square was very concrete.  There was a defined area that was not to be touched by others
  • Make things black and white (at least for a while) – you might have to use phrases such as “never” or “always” until a little understanding is developed.  We never hug anyone who is not family.  Never talk to strangers. Always leave an arm’s length between you and the person around you.
  • Use these personal space activities.
  • Try flexible seating in the classroom
  • My Body Belongs to Me – social situation booklet
  • Hula hoop activities – use a hula hoop around each student to clearly define their space. Use this visual to demonstrate how close to be to their peers
  • Wearing a box – have students wear a box around their middle while participating in a group activity.  Remind them that if their box touches another box, they are too close
  • Create borders – often young learners do not understand space. Giving each student their own carpet square, taped off area, or spot to sit on, creates a visual boundary for them to adhere to
  • Give alternatives – instead of saying “we don’t touch strangers or our friends” teach alternate ways to greet people.  How about a wave for a stranger or a fist bump for a peer? Of course, children with proprioceptive difficulties may give a fist bump too hard at first, so this will require practice
  • Use aspects of a classroom sensory diet.
  • Movement breaks – give learners a chance to move their body, so they are less apt to touch other people or invade their personal bubble
  • Explore IEP or 504 options to facilitate learning and participation in the educational environment. IEP goals for self-regulation can specifically be addressed.
  • Demonstrate – instead of using words, demonstrate what a light touch looks and feels like.  Show your learners the correct way to pet an animal, greet a friend, give a high five, stand in line, sit in a group, or socialize with peers
  • Honesty and time for reflection – sometimes learners need a little tough love and honesty in order to self reflect. This does not equate to being mean.  A conversation might start, “why do you think you were not picked for the group?” or “what made your friend move away from you just now”.   “I noticed, when you sat in the cafeteria you were touching your peers”.  “Do you notice you are talking very close to my face?”  Sometimes when I encounter the adult close talker, I wonder why no one had this honest conversation with them.

What personal bubble space strategies will you try?

While it might not be ok to tell your grandmother she is a close talker, preschool is a great time to start this process because of the natural close positioning during circle time.  Most of my IEP accommodations include alternate seating options. This small adaptation might make a huge difference in classroom productivity. 

Victoria Wood, OTR/L is a contributor to The OT Toolbox and has been providing Occupational Therapy treatment in pediatrics for more than 25 years. She has practiced in hospital settings (inpatient, outpatient, NICU, PICU), school systems, and outpatient clinics in several states. She has treated hundreds of children with various sensory processing dysfunction in the areas of behavior, gross/fine motor skills, social skills and self-care. Ms. Wood has also been a featured speaker at seminars, webinars, and school staff development training. She is the author of Seeing your Home and Community with Sensory Eyes.