Separation Anxiety during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Stony Brook Medicine's child and adolescent psychologists Jennifer Keluskar, PhD, and Debra Reicher, PhD, and child and adolescent psychiatrist Judith Crowell, MD, explain some potential challenges and obstacles that the COVID-19 pandemic may  present for children with separation anxiety.

It’s understandable if you might think there’s no need to feel concerned about kids going through separation anxiety, given school closures and many parents being either out of work or working from home.  And while this may be true for some, experience shows us that some challenges and potential obstacles are worth considering as the pandemic evolves. These include:

  • Working from home can be complicated by clingy kids. Children with separation anxiety are often triggered by separation events within the home as well.  For instance, your child may become very anxious (beyond what is typical for their developmental level) when you leave the house to take out the garbage or goes down to the basement to do the laundry. They have trouble staying in a room or on a floor of the house by themselves.  They may feel uncomfortable and become demanding when you can’t engage with them when you’re on a work call, for example.  So even though work from home arrangements are meant to be helpful and add flexibility, they can add even more stress for both parent and child. 
  • Some parents are still going to work, and there are parents working in healthcare at the front lines of the pandemic.  Children with separation anxiety can be particularly triggered when their parents’ leave home while they are expected to remain at home.  They may feel lonely or frightened without you present and fear that something bad will happen to you while you’re away from home.  It’s not uncommon for kids to worry that their parent “will never come back,” and to fear loss despite reassurances. The risk that’s currently associated with leaving home and the heightened risk for healthcare workers on the front lines that’s all over the news further fuels these fears.  Also, as a parent who’s still working outside the home, you may have fewer opportunities to create distractions, organize work assignments and structure your child’s day.
  • Some parents may be ill. Due to the delay sometimes experienced before confirming test results, individuals who are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 have been advised to socially distance from their relatives as much as possible. This is going to be a stressor for any child, not just those with separation anxiety. It’s no wonder that in addition to having to cope with having a parent in quarantine and not being able to see them and being frightened for them, that many kids also struggle with sleeping by themselves at night (and sleeping with an ill parent at this time is a clear no-no).
  • The transition back to school and work can be a challenge. Mental health professionals like us who treat kids with separation anxiety have already begun to discuss ways to support anxious kids when the time comes for the community to transition back to more “normal” conditions. Change is challenging for everyone (think of the late summer blues or how we might feel on a Sunday evening). For people with separation anxiety, re-introducing the fear-inducing trigger of separation may be especially tough.   Children with separation anxiety are more likely to avoid going to school and may refuse to go back.
  • Pros and cons of educational resources and online classrooms. The outpouring of educational resources and rapid coordination of online classrooms for homebound kids has been remarkable.  However, it is also an example of how everything that’s valuable in life comes with its unique set of challenges. In this case, the concern is that some kids (particularly ones with anxiety) will become “too comfortable” with the option of learning online. When anxious youngsters know that an option for “an out” exists, they’ll often seek it out and persist until they get their way. This isn’t based on ill-will, defiance, or manipulation. It’s is a survival instinct that’s part of human nature. Think about it this way.  Let’s say you were terrified of driving, even though you had a license and were capable of it, and a friend offered to drive you to an event you really wanted to attend. It would be tough to resist the offer rather drive yourself.

WHAT TO DO: 

Here are four tips to help your child through bouts of anxiety separation.

  1. Help your child maintain a healthy lifestyle. This includes a regular meal, exercise, activity and bedtime routine. Encourage them to avoid heavy snacks and dark television shows or films in the evening hours. Kids with separation anxiety are more prone to nightmares and sleep difficulties.
  2. Prepare your child for separations. These are highly unpredictable times, but to the greatest extent possible, talk to your child before leaving home, emphasizing that you will come back (and if possible, approximately when). Check-ins by text are okay but should be limited (agree on the number of contacts and exceptions to the rule, such as in the case of a true emergency) beforehand.
  3. Use creativity and engage your child’s imagination. For instance, have a scavenger hunt at home or play hide and seek. This will help prepare your child for moments when you will leave the room to hide or search a different part of the house. Use a visual timer so your child knows how long you’ll be gone and then extend the time with each round of the game.
  4. Involve your child in your plans to go grocery shopping. When you’re going out grocery shopping, give your child some control by allowing them to help create the grocery list, emphasizing that at a time like this, it may not be possible for one or more items to be purchased due to long lines and “one per family” rules when supplies may run out before you get there. Be aware, however, of the amount of control you give your child. Tell them that if the thought of running an additional errand pops into your mind, you don’t have to inform them, and that the time of return is an estimate. Emphasize that it’s OK if you come home a little later than expected. You can consider rewarding your child for coping with the uncertainty and waiting patiently for your return by letting them choose a family movie to watch that evening.

It’s also important to keep in mind that separation anxiety is common in children younger than primary-school age, so at that age, it may not be a cause for concern. Remember too, that separation anxiety may be situational — the result of a traumatic experience, such as the unexpected loss of a loved one.

With many of us feeling more anxious than usual about the health and wellbeing of our loved ones, it’s important to validate our children’s concerns and offer comfort.  All children are more prone to anxiety during this health crisis due to its unpredictable nature and the challenges that presents for putting information from the news into perspective.