Separation Anxiety and Social Anxiety in Kids
Anxiety is one of the most common mental health issues in children and adults. People of all ages can experience feelings of nervousness, apprehension, panic, and stress. The occurrence of anxiety-related conditions has also risen in recent years, partly thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many feel uncertain about their safety and the future, and this is particularly true among children: After living in a proverbial bubble for months and—in some cases—years, some children are struggling to cope. This has led to a rise in social anxiety and separation anxiety.
"COVID-19 increased anxiety disorders in children globally," says Shannon Miller, clinical director at ChoicePoint Health. "The sudden drastic change of learning environments and social interactions set up unusual circumstances for children's developing brains. COVID disrupted children's lives—and their childhood—and the psychological impact caused by the coronavirus pandemic, particularly on children and adolescents, was severe. Researchers have noted an uptick in anxiety-related issues."
It's important not to downplay this anxiety in children. Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that nearly 10 percent of children ages 3 to 17 will experience anxiety at some point, and the answer doesn't lie in praying they'll grow a thicker skin.
Nervous, worried kids become anxiety-prone adults, and those who haven't learned coping strategies can carry these concerns with them for the rest of their lives. Apprehension about school (especially if it's the first day) is understandable, but when you see your kids really struggling, it's critical to ask yourselves—and them—what's going on.
Here's what parents need to know to support a child with separation anxiety or social anxiety.
Signs of Separation Anxiety in Kids
If you find yourself asking "What is separation anxiety?", you're not alone. Separation anxiety is basically a fear of being away from parents or caregivers. It's developmentally normal for children under the age of 3, who are still learning to be independent. As kids get older, however, some may worry that something bad is going to happen to people in their absence, or they still feel lost and scared. Going to daycare or school can be difficult for children who experience separation anxiety, and they often experience something like the "Sunday Scaries" that adults get before the start of the workweek.
For so many kids, the coronavirus pandemic made separation anxiety worse, because they grew accustomed to being at home. Spending so long on their own also made them "too comfortable with the option of learning online," says Rebecca Rialon Berry, Ph.D., a psychologist with the Child Study Center at NYU Langone's Hassenfeld Children's Hospital, in New York City. "When anxious youngsters know that an option for an 'out' exists, they'll often seek it out and persist until they get their way."
Adding to the issue, kids may live with separation anxiety disorder, which is a more serious issue than just being afraid of a new place. Unlike the nervousness experienced by a toddler starting school, separation anxiety disorder finds older kids exhibiting real dread at the prospect of leaving their safe, familiar haven. It may be particularly heightened when they are returning to school after a lengthy break. Cognitive behavioral therapy (and in rarer cases, medication) may help.
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 at the prospect of separation
- Physical complaints like headaches, stomachaches, nausea, muscle tension, or difficulty sleeping
- Constant need for reassurance ("Do I have to go? Can you stay with me?")
- Unwillingness to sleep by themselves
Signs of Social Anxiety in Kids
While some children find it difficult to leave their parent's side, others struggle to make friends. Social anxiety can make kids deeply afraid and stressed out when they know they have to interact with other people. The National Institute of Mental Health describes the condition as "an intense, persistent fear of being watched and judged by others," and it turns going to school or a public event into a terrifying prospect. It usually affects kids between the age of 8 and 15, when they are just starting to step out on their own.
Once again, there was an uptick in social anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many children had limited social interaction. Global rates of anxiety and depression spiked by 25 percent in the first year of the pandemic, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), and that certainly included cases of those with social anxiety. In the years to come, experts anticipate that the number of kids with social anxiety will continue to rise. Some say the mental health effects of the pandemic will be seen for a generation.
Be on the lookout for the following signs of social anxiety in kids:
- Avoiding social situations, like sporting events, parties, and other extracurricular activities
- Having difficulty interacting in a group—and having a limited number of friends
- Withdrawing when placed in a group setting
- Experiencing extreme worry and nervousness about being called on in class
If a child has social anxiety, they'll likely have negative reactions to social situations. "When avoidance of these situations is impossible, these kids may experience panic attacks or otherwise endure the experience with overwhelming distress," says clinical psychologist R. Meredith Elkins, Ph.D., the co-program director of the McLean Anxiety Mastery Program in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "Rates of social anxiety disorder increase across childhood and peak in adolescence, which makes sense given the growing importance of peer relationships to kids as they enter middle and high school."
How to Help Your Child Deal With Anxiety
It can be tempting to give an anxious kid a hug and tell them it will all be OK. But the most important thing for parents to do is acknowledge the anxiety their children are feeling, not try to somehow "fix" it.
"Start by validating your child's experience, letting them know that their emotions are understandable and that you accept their experience," Dr. Elkins emphasizes. "Once you validate, express confidence in your child's ability to tolerate their distress and do hard things."
You might say something like, "You have done lots of new things before, and remember how they could feel hard at the beginning? But the more you did them, the easier they became. I know that you can be brave this time too!" This pep talk might give them confidence without overwhelming them.
"Avoidance fuels anxiety," Dr. Elkins says. "Learning that we can tolerate our distress and do the things that scare us is crucial to developing resilience, confidence, and ultimately, to decreasing anxiety."
Children with anxiety must be allowed room to breathe and process what they are going through. It's especially important that little ones feel heard and understood, says Kerry Horrell, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in mental health care for children and adolescents at The Menninger Clinic in Houston.
"Rather than immediately attempting to negate their worry [by saying 'you will have fun' or 'that won't be scary,' for example], help them name and put words to their fears," suggests Dr. Horrell. "For really young ones, drawing and coloring can be a helpful way to express themselves. Expressing their concerns, even when they're excessive or out of proportion, will help them to understand that they are experiencing anxiety, which can help it feel less out of control."
Remember: There's no shame in getting your child some help, particularly if anxiety is affecting their lives. Seeing a mental health professional who is trained to treat children may be exactly what your kid needs.