During the first hazy months of my 3-year-old’s preschool experience last fall, he cried and clung to my legs when I tried to drop him off. By February, though, he was running ecstatically after we pulled into the dusty driveway of his farm school. His world was happening increasingly away from me.
All that shifted in March, when my family settled into our basement, which my husband and I reconfigured to suit our home-office needs. For three months, our lives became small; we saw only each other, because New York, where we live, was an early hot spot in the pandemic.
Life here is opening up now. My husband has returned to work, and we’ve recruited a sitter to help with child care. I expected my eldest to leap at the opportunity to fall into the arms of a familiar person who wasn’t me. Instead, he has sunken back into the paralysis of separation anxiety, kicking, screaming and throwing truly memorable tantrums every time I so much as attempt to use the bathroom. The separation anxiety I thought we’d kicked to the curb nearly a year ago has come back, full-force.
“Separation anxiety is a normal developmental phenomenon,” said Judith Crowell, professor and interim division director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Stony Brook University. “We all want to connect with people that we are close to when we don’t feel well, when we’re frightened. And so it’s just the young child’s version of that natural urge.” The pandemic, Crowell said, probably has heightened a tendency that is already naturally occurring in children. “I think anything that is associated with uncertainty or change has the potential to trigger anxiety in kids.” Friends and acquaintances have all abruptly disappeared, she noted. “What makes him think you might not, too?”
Rose Newnham, a mother in New York with a 7-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son, noticed separation anxiety in one of her children early in the pandemic. Although Newnham’s son was the more prototypical “anxious child,” her daughter has been the one to show signs of anxiety. Her daughter started coming into her bed earlier and earlier each night and started “being a little tentacle child again, like when they’re babies,” Newnham said. One night, she was helping her daughter to fall asleep, when the full impact of the anxiety hit home. Her daughter began complaining of “bad dreams.” “I’m like, ‘OK, you’re not asleep yet. You just started trying. You basically stopped talking 20 seconds ago,” Newnham said. “And she’s like, ‘I just really, really don’t want to be apart from you.’ And it was sweet and kind of heartbreaking.”
Heather Clarke, an early childhood specialist, special educator and adjunct lecturer at Queens College CUNY, has recognized a recent change in the behavior of her two sons, ages 3 and 6, too. “With my 3 1/2-year-old, if we’re outside playing on our little co-op grounds, if somebody new comes by, even if it’s somebody that he knows, he hides behind my legs,” she said. Before, she said, her youngest son was the type of child who would have run up to people, especially people he knew.
Her older son, Clarke said, feels most comfortable these days when the family is together as a unit. Recently, Clarke said, she remained inside to grade papers while her husband took their two children outside to play. “Within 30 minutes, he had to bring [my oldest son] back inside, because he was crying,” she said. “He missed me. Because the three of them were outside, but I wasn’t with them.” To help with the anxiety, Clarke has used virtual play dates as a tool to connect her older son with some of his classmates, though she said he did not seem to like them much.
Now, with school re-openings—or partial re-openings—just around the corner, many parents are wondering how they can help their children wade back into the world. Crowell suggested taking incremental steps to refamiliarize children with some of their old environments. “As soon as you can, in the sense that you know anything, you want to talk about going back to school,” she advised.
She suggested visiting schools in advance, if possible, talking to kids about who they would see at school, and reminding them about once-familiar routines. She also suggested treading delicately with children who may be going through a tough time. For schools that allow it, she recommended spending the extra time at drop-off to allow children to go through those tough parting emotions.
At home, parents can also reduce children’s anxiety by taking small steps to facilitate the inevitable segue back into school life. “Having a routine, as much as possible, I think is helpful,” Crowell said. For children old enough to understand a calendar, she recommended using a visual prop, and scheduling specific activities, to help offer structure. “Schools have some little group time, where they talk about what the day’s going to look like,” she said. Mimicking these small routines at home can help ease the transition into school.
Exercise, Crowell advised, is also a good way to help kids manage all aspects of anxiety. “There’s a lot of evidence that, as much as you can,” you should exercise, she said. “For everybody, being physical helps with anxiety,” although she recognized that there are some limitations to access when it comes to exercising in the middle of a pandemic. Still, children can definitely benefit from regular exercise, even if it comes only in the form of a once-per-day walk outside, mask included.
Parents can also recruit their children to assist in planning small errands, such as trips to the grocery store. Involving children in this process by asking them to help compose grocery lists (and by soliciting their advice on what fun “extras” to add) can help take their minds off the fact that you need to leave—and may help get them used to other, longer departures in the future. That way, Crowell said, “they’re understanding what you’re doing, you’ll be back, and there’ll be some cool things coming with you.”
Ultimately, Crowell said, parents need to remind children that they are being taken care of, and to reinforce the idea that they can trust you and your care. “You want to convey to them that they really are safe, that they really can do this.”
Hannah Selinger writes for The Washington Post.