Family, Kids & Relationships

Dealing with separation anxiety during the pandemic

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All this together time over the past year has led some kids to become more clingy. In extreme cases, children are showing signs of separation anxiety at the thought of being separated from their parents, even for just a few hours. 

Some have simply gotten used to their parents spending more time at home since the pandemic began. For those old enough to understand the virus, there’s also a lot of fear and uncertainty about what can happen to their parents when they go back to work or leave the house for longer periods.

“For the past year, kids have gotten the message that it wasn’t safe to go to school, to go out, or to be around other people,” says family therapist Tania Paredes, Ph.D. “Now they need to be brought up to speed about how it is safer because of the vaccine and other measures that have been put in place.”

First, these are the most common signs of separation anxiety in children:

(*Note, it’s not always tantrums!)

  • Changes in sleeping or eating habits, or both
  • Unfounded fears
  • Refusal to separate
  • Reluctant participation in activities
  • Headaches or stomach aches
  • Nightmares
  • Distress at point of separation. Meltdowns are obvious, but some kids stay mum and break into tears or refuse to move from their car seats, etc. If they’re anything but calm and relaxed, it’s worth asking if they’re OK.

Older children can also experience the distress of separation anxiety, including those who are going back to in-person high school, or heading off to college. Many of the signs younger kids show still apply. Additional signs older kids may be feeling anxious include declining grades or trouble concentrating, incessant questions about where you’ll be at any given time, and anger or moodiness.

Regardless of their age, ask your child if they can identify what’s causing their anxiety.

Kids (and adults!) can benefit from naming the reasons behind how they feel. It might be worry that you’ll get sick at work, that they’ll be exposed to the virus at school, or that they’re nervous about seeing friends after an extended period of time at home.

One way to get at this answer is to ask, “What’s the worst part about…” whatever activity or circumstance they seem to be avoiding. Their answer can help you figure out the root of the problem. 

But then what?

Then you can offer the right reassurances. 

For example, if they’re worried about someone getting sick, remind them about all the safety measures you take to stay healthy. If they’re worried about seeing friends again, maybe you can role play a meet-up, or watch old videos of them playing with friends to help them remember how it’s done.

If your young child is showing signs of separation anxiety, you can also practice parting ways at home to get them used to the idea with these 4 easy steps:

  1. Pretend you’re heading out for a bit. Make sure to answer their questions, and provide assurances of your return while role-playing.
  2. Take a quick walk to the corner, around the block, or just count to 10 out of eyesight if your child is particularly distressed.
  3. Return. Point out that you came back just as you said you would.
  4. Repeat.

These tips can also help prepare kids for the next goodbye:

  • Follow through with promises. If you say you’ll be back by 3, be back by 3.
  • Be consistent with goodbye rituals. The more familiar it becomes, the calmer it will feel to your kiddo.
  • Play games like hide-and-seek that require you to be out of eyesight temporarily. 
  • Introduce new routines or caregivers slowly. Let your child adjust gradually by visiting the school during off hours if they’re returning to in-person classes or having caregivers over for short visits.
  • For younger kids, identify a “comfort corner” where they can go when stressed. Let them suggest items to keep there that will help them feel better to give a sense of control.

Keep in mind that separation anxiety usually goes away on its own once children mature or realize you really are going to be together again, whichever comes first. In the meantime, do your best to stay calm and role model the behavior you’re hoping to see, and make it a point to reassure your child with your actions as well as your words.

The former Content Director at Parenting, and several other brands, Ana Connery is a writer and content strategist whose work appears in USA Today, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, Cafe Mom/The Stir, Momtastic, and others.