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.

Separation anxiety in children has been common during the COVID pandemic, even with school closures and many parents being either out of work or working from home.  The current political and social situation around racial disparities is also very stressful for many. And as schools re-open, the problem is likely to evolve, with some children being less anxious and others more so.  

  • Separation events within the home may trigger anxiety. 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 enhance safety, they can add even more stress for both parent and child. 
  • Parents are still working. This includes those at the front lines of the pandemic or other first responders.  Children with separation anxiety can be particularly triggered when their parents leave home. They may feel lonely or frightened and fear that something bad will happen to you. So many things have changed so rapidly for all of us, that it is not surprising for children to worry that their parent "will never come back," and to fear loss despite reassurances. There is still a risk associated with leaving home and the heightened risk for those on the front lines is still in the news, even as the pandemic has eased in New York. Parents who are working in or outside the home have fewer opportunities to create distractions, organize work assignments and structure their child’s day.
  • Some parents may be ill. Individuals who are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 (or other illnesses) have been advised to socially distance from their relatives as much as possible. This is  a stressor for any child, not just those with separation anxiety. It’s no wonder that having a parent in quarantine may lead children to have trouble sleeping by themselves at night (and sleeping with an ill parent at this time is a clear no-no).
  • Pros and cons of educational resources and online classrooms. The outpouring of educational resources and rapid coordination of online information for homebound kids was remarkable. Many schools plan to continue using online instruction as part of the regular school programming, and there are likely to be more days at home than not for many. Some kids (particularly ones with anxiety) may have become “too comfortable” with remote learning. 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. A friend offered to drive you to an event you really want to attend. It would be tough to resist the offer and drive yourself.


Here are some 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 scary 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. 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 very useful 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. For example, when you’re going out grocery shopping, give your child some control by allowing them to help create the grocery list. 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.
  5. Consider seeking support yourself. If you're anxious yourself, it's difficult to help a child or teen feel secure. If you find it difficult to cope or to help your child, consider seeking support for yourself.

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 these uncertain times due to its unpredictable nature and the challenges of putting information from the news into perspective.