How parents can help children with separation anxiety as lockdown lifts

After months of being together at home, children and parents will soon have to adapt to life as it returns to the ‘new normal.’

Of course, this is likely to be a very difficult time for children – who have become accustomed to new lockdown routines.

For the past few months, children – especially very young ones – have spent every waking minute of the day with their parents.

But now, as schools reopen and adults head back to work, it’s important to be aware that this sudden separation from a home environment can make some children incredibly anxious.

Dr Nauf AlBendar, medical scientist and founder of The Womb Effect, says: ‘During these unprecedented times we should be extremely mindful on how the pandemic will contribute to the mental wellbeing of children in the long term, as well as potential issues with separation anxiety in the short term when things go back to “normal.”

‘Separation anxiety disorder can be a cause of concern when it manifests as school refusal, sleep disturbance, excessive distress, physical complaints such as headaches or vomiting when faced with separation. It can also impair social and family relationships.’

But some simple things can be done to help a child through this disruptive period.

Talk to a teacher

In a pre-pandemic world, the longest time children would break from school was the six-week-long summer holiday.

But many will be returning this month (or very soon), after almost three months away from the classroom. 

It’s unfamiliar territory for both kids and parents.

If a child has experienced separation anxiety before (or is showing signs it could be problem when they go back to school) a good way of preparing is to chat to their teacher beforehand. 

Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg, a psychiatrist at the Priory’s Wellbeing Centre in Oxford, says: ‘The young person can refresh their memory of how they do feel safe and comfortable around that adult [the teacher], too. 

‘They could even do this over a digital platform to enable some positive interaction if they cannot do it face to face.’

Also, parents could see if there’s any flexibility around drop-off and pick-up, to help make a child feel as comfortable as possible.

Dr Nauf AlBendar says: ‘Make plans with the teacher to help your child transition to school by arriving early, staying and playing with your child before the bell rings.’

Build a consistent routine

‘Routines give a feeling of safety and allow a child to simultaneously build trust and independence,’ adds Dr Nauf AlBendar.

Obviously, if a child has gone back to school or a parent has returned to work, then routines will look a little different to how they’ve been for the past three months.

Any new home routine going forward should be regular – as this will help a child adjust and build trust again.

Dr Nauf AlBendar also stresses that it’s important not to put too much into these new regimes – otherwise a child may feel overwhelmed.

She adds: ‘Focus on playtime, quiet time and healthy habits such as naps and good sleep hygiene.’

Speak positively

If you approach the change in situation with anxiety, kids are likely to pick up on it.

Child development expert and psychologist Dr. Amanda Gummer says: ‘Talk to your children about school in the same way as you do when they are starting a new term or going on a school trip. 

‘Get them excited about the adventure and all the positive things that they’ll experience – seeing friends, playtime and seeing their favourite teachers.’

Role play

A good way to address any problems or anxieties is through play – role play, in particular.

Dr. Amanda Gummer says: ‘Role play “schools” with your children and let them lead, being the teacher if they want and letting them take the narrative wherever they want to go, and you can discuss issues as they arise.’

Get them used to different environments 

Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg says: ‘Parents should encourage their child back into the outside world again as much as possible, within the rules.

‘Meet their friends at a park or in a garden and encourage them to run around with their friends at a distance from their parents, so they get used to not always having them at such a close distance.’

After such an intense period, it’s also important for parents to try and separate from children from short amounts of time (whenever possible) – as this will prepare children for when they are not around full-time.

Calming techniques

Most kids rely on parents to calm and soothe them in stressful situations – but when they’re at school, this isn’t possible.

A simple solution could be for parents to teach their children how to calm themselves.

Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg adds: ‘If a child can learn to use calming breathing when anxious, they soon learn they can manage their anxiety themselves and bring it down quite easily.’

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