Back to Normal…Right?

Families across the world hunkered down during the COVID pandemic, transitioned to online learning, worked from home, and survived life together—all under the same roof—day and night. Now that things are returning to “normal,” how do we prepare to send our children back into the world and away from their parents—perhaps for the first time in nearly a year?

“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 symptoms diminishing for several of her clients who were “stuck in their homes” during the 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.”

To help enable your child to make a healthy adjustment to the post-COVID world, it’s vital to identify separation anxiety symptoms and what to do when you see them.

Separation Anxiety Symptoms in Kids

You may be asking yourself, “Exactly what is separation anxiety?”

It’s essentially the fear of being physically separated from a parent or caregiver. Such a fear may trigger children to worry that something bad will happen to a family member in their absence, or children might have a sense of dread when alone. As a result, attending daycare or school becomes difficult, and the children often experience something akin to the “Sunday Scaries” that adults get.

While the pandemic has sparked separation anxiety in some kids, it has also worsened existing cases for others. “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.”

Common separation anxiety symptoms include:

  • Lots of worries when parted from home or family

  • Refusal to attend school or daycare

  • Throwing tantrums when faced with separation from parents or caregivers

  • Constantly asking for reassurance (Do I have to go? Can you stay with me?)

  • Refusing to sleep alone or at a friend’s house

  • Repeated nightmares with a theme of separation

  • Too much worry about the safety of one’s self or a family member

  • Excessive worry about getting lost from family

  • Frequent stomach aches, headaches, or other physical complaints

  • Muscle aches or tension

  • Being very clingy, even when at home

  • Panic or temper tantrums at times of separation

3 Ways That You Can Help Your Child

1. The Goodbye

Carefully Choreograph the Goodbye Ritual

When you reach the anticipated moment of separation, give your child full attention, be loving, and provide affection. Then say goodbye, and don’t recoil despite her antics or cries for you to stay.

“Don’t linger. The lingering suggests that you might not trust the situation and may make them more upset,” says Jennifer Miller, a family, and educational consultant and founder of Confident Parents, Confident Kids. If you linger, the transition time does too. So will the anxiety.

While the actual moment of separation shouldn’t linger, the goodbye shouldn’t come unexpectedly. Prepare for this moment days in advance, by informing your child that the “goodbye” will come, and allow for and be accepting of any emotions (and hurtful words) that this may elicit from your child. Gradually get her used to the reality that the moment of separation will occur and that she can handle it.

2. The Return

By keeping your promise to return exactly as you said, you’ll build trust and confidence in your child’s ability to be without you, and ease her capacity to handle separation going forward. It’s important you return at the time you promised.

When discussing your return, provide specifics that your child understands. If you know you’ll be back by 3:00 pm, share this with your child on her terms; for example, say, “I’ll be back after nap time and before afternoon snack.” Be sure to express this as a time she can understand. Talk about your return from a business trip in terms of “sleeps.” Instead of saying, “I’ll be home in 3 days,” say, “I’ll be home after 3 sleeps.”

3. The Emotions

Many psychologists suggest that the most important component of this challenge is to initiate conversations with your kids about their feelings. Validate those feelings, and discuss how they can cope with these difficult feelings once they are back in school. Perhaps it would help to read books about those feelings or about being back at school.

Dr. Berry emphasizes how critical acknowledging the challenging transition can be for your child. “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.”

“In general, when children are anxious, the parent’s job is to communicate to the child that it is normal to feel some anxiety AND they know the child can handle whatever is making them anxious, AND they are there to support the child,” Dr. Laura Markham, author of “Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids” says.

“In other words, ‘You can handle this. I will help. You can feel the fear and do it anyway.’ That’s what strengthens the child’s confidence and diminishes the anxiety.”

Don’t Be a Basket Case

As a final note, remember that nothing spooks a child more than your anxiety. When you are separating from a child, getting tearful or asking your child if she’s going to be alright will just make her worry that something bad is going to happen while you’re gone. And don’t sweet-talk your child into staying by promising a reward. That won’t work to soothe her, either.

Instead, keep the separation in perspective: “You’re just leaving your child with the babysitter, not going away to Europe,” says Elizabeth Pantley, author of the No-Cry series, including The No-Cry Separation Anxiety Solution. And if you’ve been falling apart until now, don’t worry: Kids are resilient, she adds. Just make a vow to start over tomorrow morning.