Many children suffer the pangs of separation anxiety as they return to school, but some research suggests long months of pandemic-related quarantines and remote schooling has made the problem worse for some.
As many as 4 percent to 7 percent of children between ages 7 and 11, and 1.6 percent of adolescents suffer from separation anxiety disorder, according to a 2022 estimate from The Recovery Village, a network of rehabilitation centers.
While a few butterflies in the stomach are common on the first day of school, separation anxiety can become a full-blown mental disorder when “a person experiences excessive anxiety, fear, distress when separated from the closest person to whom he or she is attached (most often it concerns parents, grandparents or siblings),” according to research by Malgorzata Dabkowska, a researcher from Nicolaus Copernicus University in Poland, and Agnieszka Dabkowska-Mika from Innsbruck Medical University in Austria.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, separation anxiety is considered a normal response in toddlers and younger children, but if it continues in older children, or prevents the child’s achievement of milestones such as going to school or playing with friends, the child may have separation anxiety disorder.
The thought of separation can lead to temper tantrums, a refusal to go to school, a fear of being alone, and physical symptoms such as headaches and stomachaches.
Impact of the pandemic on students with separation anxiety disorder
New research has found that the pandemic lockdown and the return to school after a long quarantine may cause difficulty in students when returning to an in-person setting.
According to Dabkowska and Dabkowska-Mika, the pandemic had a big impact on mental health worldwide, with an increase in “emotional outbursts, especially panic, avoidance, stigmatization and different types of fear,” including social anxiety and fear of death or getting isolated.”
The research found that pandemic-related stress also reduced parents’ ability to support their child emotionally, which further intensified their child’s separation anxiety as they were more likely to feel a lack of security.
“During the pandemic, children with separation anxiety who refuse to attend school may initially feel better [but] when the pandemic is over, avoidance behavior can worsen and prevent return to school after ending social isolation,” the researchers write.
Another study by researchers at Cardiff University’s School of Psychology and School of Medicine in the United Kingdom said that students’ fears of being exposed to the virus in school were often reinforced by parents and what they saw in the media, leading to students feeling increasingly anxious about their return to school.
“Children’s exposure to parental and media discussions about the risks of illness and death, coupled with the need to take precautionary measures, made children more aware of their bodily sensations and more concerned about getting ill and/or dying, perhaps giving rise to panic,” the research found.
Teachers and parents can help ease children’s fears about separating from loved ones to go back to school. Here are some of the coping strategies they suggest:
Create a routine for students
Inculcate a sense of routine in the school day so that students know what to expect as they adjust to their new environments.
Some ways experts suggest are using a visual timetable for students to refer to, or establishing a greeting routine with younger students like smiling and shaking their hand as they enter the classroom in the morning and having their parents say goodbye at the door, which can help create a sense of trust with the teacher.
Recognize older students may have different reasons for separation anxiety
According to an article from Stanford Medicine Children’s Health, a health-care network in the San Francisco Bay area, preteens and teenagers may have social anxieties for different reasons than their younger peers. They might fear their peers won’t accept them, for instance.
“Students’ oppositional behaviors or complaints that school is ‘boring’ may be driven by underlying anxieties,” Barbara Bentley, a clinical associate professor of developmental and behavioral pediatrics with the Stanford Medicine Children’s Health network, said.
In this case, she suggests the adults in the child’s life have honest conversations with the student, acknowledging their internal emotional experience while communicating confidence in the older student’s ability to handle challenges.
Orientation events can help students get used to the school setting
For middle schoolers or students in junior high or high school, orientation activities such as campus tours and open houses can help in calming anxieties, managing expectations, and making new friends, according to Stanford Medicine Children’s Heath.
Professional mental health resources can help
Educators who suspect a student may be suffering from separation anxiety disorder can communicate with their parents or guardians and refer them to seek professional help with a therapist or a school counselor.
Medical and mental health professionals can guide families on other options for managing separation anxiety, including cognitive behavioral therapy, antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications, and school-based mental health interventions.