How to Deal with Separation Anxiety in Children After COVID-19
Families across the U.S. hunkered down during the COVID-19 pandemic, taking on distance learning, working from home, and surviving life together—under one roof—around the clock. Now that the country is reopening, how do we prepare to send our kids back out into the world and away from their parents—possibly for the first time in months?
"Children [have] become accustomed to seeing their parents more and knowing they are home," says Rebecca Rialon Berry, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist at the Child Study Center at Hassenfeld Children's Hospital at NYU Langone Health who has noticed separation anxiety behaviors actually reducing in a number of her clients who were home for quarantine.
"The increased level of attention and time given by parents working from home feels really good; this has become their new norm, establishing an expectation that this is how things will be all the time," says Dr. Berry. "Defying these expectations in too abrupt a manner can be jolting for many kids, as parent attention is the most reinforcing 'currency' for children."
For kids who have a harder time responding to change, and especially for younger kids—typically between 18 months and 3 years old—who are more prone to separation anxiety, Dr. Berry says that "the fear-inducing trigger of separation may be especially tough. Children with separation anxiety may be more likely to avoid going to school and may refuse to go back."
To help your child adjust to post-pandemic life, it's important to recognize separation anxiety symptoms and learn how to deal with them. Here's what you need to know.
Separation Anxiety Symptoms in Kids
Are you asking yourself, "What is separation anxiety? It's basically a fear of being away from parents or caregivers. A child might worry that something bad could happen to a family member in their absence, or they might feel lost on their own. Going to daycare or school is usually difficult with separation anxiety, and kids often experience something similar to the "Sunday Scaries" that adults get.
The pandemic has sparked separation anxiety in some kids, and it has also worsened existing cases. "Some kids—particularly ones with anxiety—have become 'too comfortable' with the option of learning online," says Dr. Berry. "When anxious youngsters know that an option for an 'out' exists, they'll often seek it out and persist until they get their way."
Here are some separation anxiety symptoms in kids:
- Feelings of worry when away from family or caregivers
- Refusal to attend school or daycare
- Throwing tantrums when faced with separation
- Physical complaints like headaches, nausea, muscle tension, or difficulty sleeping
- Constantly asking for reassurance (Do I have to go? Can you stay with me?)
Dr. Berry expects to see more challenges for nursery school kids than for older kids and teens who typically desire more independence.
How to Deal with Separation Anxiety
When going back to the classroom, kids need to transition outside of the home and away from parents again. Schools are already preparing for this. "When we go back to school, it is going to be a mixed bag of kids who will pick up where they left off, be resilient, and easily transition back with the expectations and routines," says Christina Ko, a first grade teacher in New York City who's been teaching her students virtually from Long Island—with a toddler at home and a baby on the way.
However, she adds, "a lot will need time to slowly transition back into 'school mode' and work on separating from their parents. Because of this, we have already established that the first couple weeks of school we are going to have to address the trauma that they have faced in the last school year, spend more time on social/emotional learning, and slow down the academic instruction."
Wondering what parents can do to help? Check out these expert-approved ways to prepare kids to get back to their "normal" lives again, stopping separation anxiety in its tracks.
Follow your pre-pandemic routine.
Cookies for breakfast, pajamas until lunchtime, and screens all day? To help your kids adjust back to school or daycare, you'll want to mimic whatever you were doing before COVID-19 at least two weeks before school starts—or before you plan to send your child back to daycare. That means waking up at your normal time, getting dressed, and eating breakfast as usual. No need to worry about lesson plans or trying to catch your child up before September.
"I wouldn't stress too much on the academics portion because it might cause more stress on the kids and the parents," says Ko, who's been teaching for nearly a decade. "That is what a teacher is for and they will support the kid in those areas once school starts up again."
Say goodbye, if you can.
To follow through with your school routine, you might want to start practicing saying goodbye and leaving the house—or even going into another room to work—if you can get someone else to watch your child.
"Parents working from home have inadvertently, due to the circumstances, established a precedent in which the parent is home and more available—at least in theory—and likely giving more attention than when the parent was working outside of the home," says Dr. Berry, who recommends talking to your child before leaving, emphasizing that you will come back, and minimizing reassurance, which can actually backfire and reinforce the anxiety.
For older kids, "One check-in by text is OK, but contact in general should be limited. Agree on the number of contacts and exceptions to the rule, such as in the case of a true emergency, beforehand," she says.
If you're not able to physically leave, you can start practicing giving your child more time for independent play to have them get used to solo time.
Validate their emotions.
For Ko, "the most important thing is to have conversations with your kids about how they are feeling, validate those feelings, and [discuss] how they can cope with these negative feelings once they are back in school." This can include reading books about their feelings or about being back at school.
Dr. Berry agrees, emphasizing just how important acknowledging the challenging transition can be for your kids. "Expressing that it is OK for a child to feel what they are feeling is the most valuable message a parent can convey to them at this time," she stresses. "This needs to be balanced with an expectation that the child will continue to expose themselves to challenging situations."
Along with this, Dr. Berry suggests establishing rewards (think sticker charts or a favorite treat) for effort and to increase motivation in addition to vocalizing your confidence in your kids, even if you're a bit on edge yourself.
Remember: Kids are resilient—they might adjust faster than you think!