During the COVID-19 pandemic, children have been with you most of the day, every day. This closeness comes with some wonderful highs and some stressful lows. It also comes with a very deep bonding between parent and child. Throughout this unusual time, your child may have grown quite used to this bond. This is wonderful for building positive attachment within the family. However, when it’s time for your child to go back to school or for you to go back to work, your child may experience an increase in separation anxiety. This can be stressful for the whole family. This is especially true if your family has worked through separation anxiety before. You may feel as though you are backsliding.
It is completely normal and expected to see an uptick in difficult feelings, including separation anxiety, during a major transition. This article will review what separation anxiety may look like and give proactive strategies to try to make the transition as smooth as possible.
What is Separation Anxiety:
Separation anxiety occurs when a child experiences an intense amount of distress when they are separated from their caregiver. This distress looks different from child to child. Some children cry and cling to their caregiver’s leg while others become angry, shout, and hit. Below is a list of some typical signs that your child is experiencing separation anxiety:
- Increased clinginess
- Refusing to go to school
- An exaggerated worry that something bad will happen to themselves or someone they love
- A disruption in their normal sleep pattern or appetite
- Suddenly, they are doing things they’ve grown out of such as sucking their thumb or wetting the bed
- Increased irritability, anger, sadness, or frustration
- They won’t let their caregiver out of their sights
- Physical complaints such as stomach pains or headaches
Tips on Helping Your Child Transition Back to Normal Life
Though the transition back to school or daycare after COVID-19 may be difficult, there are actions you can take to ease the transition. These proactive steps have an added benefit of encouraging your child’s independence and help foster their sense of security.
Take Care of Yourself
For your own well-being, take time to reflect on and process your own anxiety about returning to work and separating from your child. Be kind to yourself and know that you are not alone in feeling overwhelmed or unsure.
- Talk to friends and loved ones. Reach out to your support network and take little moments of self-care throughout the day.
- Model calm. Taking care of yourself will be helpful in modeling the calm for your child when it comes time for the first drop off. Develop a mantra that you think to yourself while dropping your child off or if they are having big feelings to help you stay calm. A few examples are:
- Feelings come and go. I can share my calm.
- My children benefit from their village.
- We grow through challenges.
- Set realistic expectations for yourself and your child. This transition will likely result in stress or difficult moments. Separation can be hard for young ones, whether or not there is separation anxiety. Know that is okay. Be hopeful. You have successfully managed transitions before. Be patient with yourself and your child, know that it will get better over time.
Give as Many Details as You Can
Children do best when given specific details and time to process information. There will likely be changes to your child’s school setting this year and talking it out with them will help alleviate anxiety.
- Reach out to your Child’s School or Daycare. Teachers and other school staff are experts in ways to manage separation anxiety and can help you develop a proactive plan at drop-off. They can also inform you of precautions they are taking, like if their staff are wearing masks or changing certain learned routines, so that you and your child can be prepared.
- Be open to discussing feelings. Tell your child all feelings are okay and re-iterate that you and their teachers will keep them safe and can help them cope with their big feelings.
- Develop a drop off ritual with your child. Involve your child in a conversation about how they would like to say goodbye. Many schools read the book The Kissing Hand by Barbara Bain. Rituals, like routines, help kids feel comfortable and safe. You can create a secret handshake, a special high-five, rub noses, or just give big hugs. Try to do the same thing every day. This will make drop-off a little less scary.
- Be specific on when you are going to pick them up. Talk to your child about times in terms they understand. Rather than saying, “I’ll pick you up at 4:30.” Say, “I’ll pick you up right after nap.” If you need to change the time, call the school so they can pass the message on.
Give Them a Transition Object
Give your child an object that lets them know they are loved and that you are thinking about them.
- Pick out something special for them to wear. A great choice for a transition object is something they can wear. Give your child a special bracelet or necklace. Let them know that whenever they look at it, they can know they are loved.
- Cut a special piece of yarn. Grab a roll of yarn or get some colorful string. Cut off a piece for your child and a piece for yourself. That way you each have something that helps you feel connected to the other person.
- Make an “I love you” card. You can draw something special for your child or create a piece of art with them. Whenever they look at it, they can know that a loved one is out there thinking about them.
Talk to a Professional
If you continue to struggle with separation anxiety, or find that despite these strategies, separation is hard, consider seeking support from a trusted therapist. At Carolina Pediatric Therapy, we have a team of outpatient therapists who are prepared to walk beside you on your journey.
Perry Lavin is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor Associate and Kelly Jean Tucker is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor with Carolina Pediatric Therapy. Both are a part of a multidisciplinary team including occupational, speech, and physical therapists supporting and promoting children’s development and well being.