Separation anxiety and back to school: Facilitating a smooth return during COVID-19

Kristin Hoffmeister | UTHealth

Melissa Goldberg, PsyD, says younger students are more likely to experience increased separation anxiety during the initial return to school. (Getty Images)

Going back to school each fall brings a mix of excitement and nerves for both parents and children. This year, in addition to the normal routine of navigating school supplies, books, and course schedules, parents also have to consider something new: the mental health effects of COVID-19.

“While older students might experience a mix of feelings ranging from excitement and enthusiasm to dread and worry, younger students are more likely to experience increased separation anxiety during the initial return to school,” said Melissa Goldberg, PsyD, a clinical assistant professor in the Louis A. Faillace, MD, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth.

Going to school during the new normal

Even before COVID-19 changed the world, returning to school could be a difficult adjustment for many young children, especially those attending school for the first time, Goldberg said. Separation anxiety, which involves clinginess, crying, and tantrums, can be challenging for parents, but it is a normal part of childhood development. As toddlers begin to explore and understand the world around them, they often struggle to separate from their caregivers.

With social distancing forcing many families into extended periods of confinement, many young children also became used to a new normal that includes their parents working from home. The return of the school year threatens to disrupt these routines and the constant interaction with caregivers.

“Before the pandemic, it was considered best practice for a parent to take their child to school before class begins to introduce them to their teacher and help them get comfortable in a new environment,” said Goldberg. “But COVID-19 might make this practice inadvisable or impossible, so the transition to school might be even more difficult for our little ones.”

How to ease separation anxiety during the pandemic

For parents dealing with an anxious child at school drop-off, several techniques can help ease symptoms.

“It is important to give children an age-appropriate understanding of what to expect with their return to school and any possible changes due to the pandemic,” said Goldberg. “Parents should also give their children space to talk about COVID-19 and how they are feeling.”

Remaining supportive but keeping goodbyes brief can also help make the separation process easier. Parents should acknowledge the anxiety over school drop-offs and reassure their children that time apart is temporary. But giving in to tantrums or arguments can be detrimental for children and teach them that poor behavior yields positive results. When leaving a child at school, enlisting the help of teachers, who understand separation anxiety and are equipped to handle minor outbursts, can further ease the transition.

As children get used to their new school routines, separation anxiety should decrease over time. If a child’s anxiety persists and begins to interfere with normal school activities like learning and building friendships, a pediatric mental health specialist may be able to help build a more positive outlook and better behaviors.

To make an appointment with a pediatric mental health specialist, call 888-4UT-DOCS or download the UT Physicians app.