Dealing With School-Related Post-Pandemic Separation Anxiety

6 Ways You Can Support Your Child’s Return To In-Person School

Small schoolgirl with face mask and unrecognizable mother indoors at home, hugging.
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I am counting down the days until the first day of school for my own sanity (and my kids’ well-being). They need to be in school, when the time comes, and for now, summer camp is providing them with what they need. They need social interactions with their peers, support from other adults who aren’t their parents, respite from being with their parents so much, and to learn about how the world works while simply being free to be this summer especially.

I know we are lucky, having survived the pandemic fairly unscathed. A year ago, we were thrown into what would become our new normal. I adjusted to life as a parent, a teacher, the lunch lady, a playmate, the recess monitor, while also simply providing for their basic needs as their parent. Ya know, keeping a roof over their head, food in their belly, and clothes on their backs.

Last year, some of us had kids in school (with masks, distancing, weird schedules). Others of us had kids in virtual learning. And some of us choose to homeschool our kids. Next year, though, many of us are sending our kids back to in-person school. Regardless of how school went for you last year, it’s likely that on top of the general stress of going back to school after summer break, many of our kids are going to be dealing with a healthy dose of separation anxiety, especially kids who haven’t been in school buildings for 18 months.

According to the Stanford Children’s Health, separation anxiety disorder (SAD) is a mental health problem that 13 out of every 100 children between the ages 9-17-years-old deal with. No child is exempt from being bogged down by the feelings associated with separation anxiety. Let’s also throw in masks (or no masks), desk shields (or no desk shields), vaccines (or no vaccines), and one’s anxiety level can only go up. I am exhausted just writing about it. But we lived through it and so did our kids. Now, many parents are now navigating their kids’ separation anxiety as they prepare them to return to in-person school. Post-pandemic separation anxiety is a real thing and here are a few ways you can help your child (and you) ease back into in-person school.

Children with parents who are diagnosed with anxiety are more likely to get separation anxiety disorder. From preschoolers to high schoolers, separation anxiety can interfere with every aspect of their lives. Children grappling with separation anxiety have symptoms which range from nausea and changes in their breathing to constant worry for them or their loved ones. These are symptoms that cannot be ignored or brushed off. We must pay attention to them always, but especially right now.

Here are 6 ways you can support your child’s return to in-person school.

Remember to give your kid (and yourself) grace

So what if you’re late on the first day, or you don’t get all of the items on their school supply list or they (or you) forget to return their school computer with their charger — everything will fall into place at the time it should. Maybe it’ll be on Day 2 of school or Day 90. Be easy on yourself and your kids.

Talk about what will come…once they return to school

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Let’s be real — no one wants to hear about school ad nauseam during the summer. But to quell some of the symptoms of anxiety your kid might be experiencing, talk about it, go visit their school, go play on the playground, arrange playdates with their school friends.

Ease into what in-person school means for you and your family

Establishing routines will be an important part in helping your child with their worries. In the last year, you’ve worked hard to create normal out of something that was far from normal — bring that back for in-person school, but go slow. One week, talk about what kind of school routine would work for them. Maybe it’s walking the dog every morning before preparing for school, maybe it’s setting their clothes out the night before or maybe it’s something you’d not allowed before. Let them watch a television show before heading out for school (educational, if possible).

Talk about feelings

Listen to what your kids have to say about school, their feelings and share yours with them (your fears and excitement). Maybe you’re already sharing in this way with them or maybe not — it’s never too late to start talking about feelings. And check in with their teachers about what they are seeing in the classroom. Keep lines of communication open with both teachers and your kids to help them feel more secure.

Remind them that you will return to get them

You can validate their feelings while being honest and telling this: “I’ll be back to get you” or “I’ll be home when you get off of the bus,” and say “Goodbye love, have a wonderful day at school and I will try to as well at work. I will miss you, but I’ll see you soon.” It’ll certainly be challenging the first day or so, but it’ll all get better.

Establish routines

Routines are important for everyone’s mental health. Try using the summertime as an opportunity to do a little school pre-gaming: set the alarm clock so they can get up every morning, have them set their clothes out the night before, have them prep a lunch either for camp the next day or just because. All attempts to get them back into some semblance of a normal routine. 

Heck, we all know that going back to school after summer break can be difficult. But going back to school after a year of school being in your home or some combination of being at home and being in school, kids may have many feelings (as they should) about going back to in-person school — talk about them with them. What you do and say will be important as they transition back to school.