Separation anxiety in young children (birth-8) has been one of the most common challenges I have worked with in 2021, as a family psychotherapist and early childhood mental health consultant, in the Washington, DC metro area. As we have returned to in-person school, extra-curricular activities and socializing after a year of social distancing, some of children have found it distressing to be away from their parents or primary caregivers.
Some of the manifestations of separation anxiety are: reluctance to attend school/daycare or extra-curricular activities, difficulty with sleeping independently, frequent crying, lack of interest in relationships outside of the family/friend “bubble,” low self-confidence, and irrational worries about danger to family members. The intensity and repercussions of these symptoms rise to the level of Separation Anxiety Disorder only for some children, and for others remains a daily struggle for the entire family.
The ripple effect of separation anxiety travels to many areas of social-emotional functioning: lack of participation in school/daycare accompanied by academic delays, low social skills, diminished sense of belonging to a peer group, loss of opportunities in other developmental areas (e.g., gross motor and fine motor) that extra-curricular activities can provide; and for the parents or primary caregivers, increased stress, loss of sleep and interference with work time. Repeated struggles with separation anxiety add up to a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness that feed further into anxiety.
My experience is congruent with the few studies available about the impact of the pandemic on children’s mental health. Children who lived in urban areas and suffered financial and food instability showed symptoms of anxiety, depression, inattention and sleep problems. The majority of preschool children with Autism Spectrum Disorder experienced extreme to moderate stress due to the disruption of therapeutic and educational services, and the minimal benefits of online services. Other risk factors of psychological distress during and after the pandemic were disproportionate disruptions of daily schedules and pre-existing emotional disorders and trauma (Child Mind Institute, 2021 Children’s Mental Health Report).
Many families have overcome these challenges with the support of therapists, school counselors and child mental health consultants. For families of school-age children with mild anxiety symptoms, I recommend the self-help parenting book “Breaking Free of Child Anxiety and OCD” by Eli Lebowitz.
I have summarized my recommendations for parents, educators and caregivers to respond to toddlers and preschoolers with mild separation anxiety, in a handout that you can download HERE.