By Shannon Traphagen

Children who are heading back to the classroom this fall are facing unusual challenges, and one of them is anxiety about being separated from their families after months of togetherness. For some kids, it will trigger separation anxiety, in addition to the anxiety they may feel about leaving their safe harbor from the pandemic.

“Kids are now used to being home with their parents,” noted Dr. Allison Winik of the American Psychological Association in a Psychology Today article. Even kids who had comfortably adjusted to being in school before the pandemic are finding it stressful to be separated now. Dr. Winik explains, “There is the added fear that other individuals are not as covid safe as we thought they were. When kids go out now, they’re often reminded not to get too close to other people, to keep their masks on, use sanitizer, and wash their hands.”

These are, of course, realistic fears that many adults share. Parents also understand there’s a real risk that in-person schooling may be suspended if it leads to outbreaks of COVID-19 and its Delta variant.

For some children, the excitement of going back to school will outweigh potential anxiety, but kids who already have anxiety are more prone to being more anxious returning to the classroom.

It can be complicated dealing with all this anxiety and uncertainty; reassuring children that it’s safe to be away from them, while also encouraging them to be careful and preparing them to be flexible in case the situation changes. So, how does Dr. Winik suggest we do both?

Validate their feelings. Listen to your child’s fears and worries without feeding into them too much. Validate how they feel by telling them it’s ok to feel the way they do, but also how proud you are of them for going to school.

Set the tone. If you are anxious, they will be anxious. If you are worried about them staying safe in school, they will worry about it too. Work together to ask and answer questions, and help them stay calm.

Help them think positively. For young kids worried about separation, it helps them to know what you’re doing while they’re at school, and how you’re staying safe. You can help them imagine where you are by explaining how you will spend your day or what measures your work takes to stay safe. Another way to help kids focus on positive things is to try to get them to talk about the good things about school. What are they looking forward to? What did they enjoy the previous day?

Practice Separating. For children who are anxious about being apart, experts suggest practicing separation, starting in small ways, and building tolerance for more and more independence. Have children play in their rooms by themselves while you cook dinner, or stay with another caregiver while you run errands or have a “date night.”

Just as children adapted to learning from home at the start of the pandemic, they will eventually adjust to returning to the classroom. With your warm and firm support, this, too, shall pass.