Post-Pandemic Separation Anxiety

Dr. Corinne Masur

More people are getting vaccinated, spring is coming, and little by little we may be able to get out more than we have been.

This is a good thing, right?

Well, it IS a good thing, as long as we continue to use precautions like mask wearing and social distancing and hand washing. This spring more children may actually get to go to school and daycare and this summer children may get to go to camp and families may actually be able to go on vacation.

BUT we need to be prepared for some increased separation anxiety for some children – and even for some adults.

We have gotten used to hunkering down at home and spending more time there than ever before.  And as hard as it has been, as claustrophobic as it might have felt at times, as much as we all yearned for the freedom to be able to go where we wanted, it is possible that some of us will find it difficult to go back out into the world to do the things we think we want to do.

Even now, trips which used to be mundane can feel like a big deal.  For those of you who have worked at home, have you tried visiting the office yet?  Have you tried driving to places you used to go routinely which you haven’t been to in months?  It can feel strange to do these things; it can be anxiety provoking.

So, assume that your children will feel some of these feelings of strangeness when they try to do things they haven’t done in months.  They may be excited – but they may also have trepidations; they may be hesitant; they may ask questions like, “is it safe?” or “will my friends recognize me?”

The best advice we can give, given that none of us have been through anything like this before, is the following:

      – Prepare your children for what is coming.  If they are going back to daycare or school in person – or back to church or synagogue or music lessons or play dates, start talking about it a few days in advance.  Tell them what it will be like.  Tell them that they might have worries or questions and that they are welcome to talk with you about it. Tell them how you expect them to behave and remind them of what is required in these situations.

     – Take it slowly.  Do not assume that everyone will be on board right away with doing things they have not done for a year.

     – Expect some last minute demonstrations of anxiety.  Before doing something that they have not done before or something they have not done in a long time, it is not unusual for a child to develop a stomachache or a headache or to feel ill in some other way. This is their body talking and saying what they cannot say with words, “I’m afraid to do this!”  Remember, children do not develop these symptoms on purpose.

And adults, take it easy on yourselves as well. You may feel anxious when your children start back to school full time or go for sleepovers at relatives’ or friends’ houses.  You are used to having them close by. And again, as difficult as it may have been at times, it may have become so familiar that it feels strange to have them away from you. You may feel relief…and you may also feel nervous.  Give yourself time to get used to your children doing more on their own away from the house – and reassure yourself that ALL of you need to learn how to be more independent again.

COVID and the School Decision: One Mother’s Struggle

Dr. Corinne Masur

In late August and early September when schools finally decided about how they were going to open, many of them then passed the decision making on to parents: in school, out of school, or hybrid?

How were parents supposed to decide?

There were so many factors: what is possible for our family given our work and child care situations? What is safest for our family? What do our children want? What do we want for our children?

Parents had to weigh one important aspect of their children’s wellbeing against another.  These were impossible choices. What was more important, caution in the face of COVID, the children’s social needs, or the financial needs of the family?  In some cases, parents had to choose between their own jobs and becoming distance learning aids. In other cases, parents had no choice: they had to work so their children just had to go back to school.

One mother called me for advice. She had two sons, one in first grade and one in fourth.  She was very worried about the children being exposed to COVID for two reasons. One son had a respiratory vulnerability and secondly, the children’s grandfather had recently had cancer and was immunocompromised following a transplant. What if they went to school, were exposed to COVID and then exposed him either directly or indirectly?

On the other hand, she wanted her children to be able to build relationships with their new teachers and classmates.

As a person who likes to make her decisions carefully and in an informed way, she felt overwhelmed both by too much information and too little.

By late summer, we knew a great deal more about the transmission of COVID than we had in March at the beginning of the pandemic.  This mother understood how COVID is transmitted and as a result, what the school would need to do to keep children and staff safe. They would have to provide good ventilation and air exchange inside the building and they would also need to provide the possibility for having as many classes outdoors as possible.  But her particular school was not giving parents information about their HVAC system and they did not have a plan in place for outdoor learning.  When this mom went over to look at the school, they only had one small tent standing – which of course would be totally insufficient for the hundreds of children attending school in the fall.

What were they planning for outdoor learning, anyway?  And what would they do on rainy days? She could not get answers.  And through a friend she heard that the school had told one parent that if they had so many questions, they should just do the at home option – as if these questions were not the school’s responsibility to answer!

This mother had enjoyed a feeling of connectedness with her children’s school and now she felt isolated and alone.  As the deadline loomed for making her decision, she learned that very few parents in either of her son’s grades had chosen the at-home schooling option.  Why did so many parents feel it was safe to send their children to school when she did not? She wished she could ask them.

This is what went through this mother’s mind: if her children got COVID, she would be the one to take care of them as her husband simply would not be able to take time off from work; she would have to quit her job or take a leave.  If she got COVID, she had no idea who would take care of the children.  If the virus was transmitted to her mother either through her (this mom’s) infection or her children’s, she would be the one who would have to take care of her ill father – thus necessitating her quitting or taking a leave from her work. If her younger son got COVID he might be at risk for the more severe complications of the illness given his respiratory vulnerability.

She thought about the decision a great deal. She stayed up nights wondering what she should choose. She discussed this with her husband, with her friends, with her family.  She received all sorts of input – both conflicting and agreeing with her own thoughts. And in the end, she felt that her family was just too vulnerable.

The risks of illness were too great for this mother.  She decided on doing school from home.  She altered her work schedule and began being her children’s distance learning aid.  Her older son was okay some of the time but at other moments, he hated the arrangement. He screamed and cried and melted down. Her younger son was fine with online school.  And this mother? Well, she felt stressed, wondering every single day of the new school year if she had made the right decision.

Will the Pandemic Ruin my Child?

Part 3: Worrying About COVID

Dr. Corinne Masur

What effect does the constant worry about illness and safety have on children? 

There is no doubt that the worry about COVID and how to stay safe from contracting it is affecting all of us – including our children.

Kids of all ages pick up on their parent’s anxiety.  When we are worried, our children are like sponges – they know we are worried and they may get worried too.

And, of course, we are all worried about getting sick, about infecting others, about how best to protect ourselves, etc.  We are reading the latest information and watching the news.

And regardless of what we do or do not tell our children directly, by age two to three they know about some of the things we are worried about. They will have overheard our conversations, they will have heard some news from the television or radio, and for older children, they will have learned things from their friends about what is going on. 

Children of all ages will be worried about what is safe and what is not – and at the same time they may be unhappy or downright resistant to wearing masks, washing hands, and social distancing. 

After quarantining at home, they may want to go out to their favorite places – but at the same time be worried about going out and going to places they haven’t been for a long while.  Even older kids and teens may feel this way – although they may not admit it.

Children of all ages may be worried about germs and about contagion, they may be confused about how this disease gets communicated and how it does not.

So, what effect does all the worry have on kids?  And what effect does it have on them to live in a world so different from what they were used to?

Well, I have a point of view that may be different from much of what you have read.  From my training as a child psychologist and a child psychoanalyst, this is how I see it:

For the most part, children (from 0 – 9 or so) live mostly in the present moment.  That is why, when older relatives ask, “How was school today?” they often don’t have an answer.  They are usually thinking about what is happening right now.  For example, “There are cookies on the table, when can I eat one?” or “Why does grandpa have strange ear hairs?” NOT about school – that was HOURS ago.

So, in this changed world, young children often are just taking in what is happening in the moment.  “OH?  We have to wear masks? Why?”  With a good explanation, they may rebel or they may move forward but they are not thinking as much about how weird this new world is as you are.

And for older children and teenagers, well, they will have lots of questions. They will want to know how long this is going to last and whether life will ever go back to the way it was; they will worry about what effect not seeing friends and not doing school in the regular way will have on the friendships and on their futures.  They will chafe at the restrictions and be irritable and frustrated and angry. They will worry about what happens if they DO get COVID, or if you do.  

And the problem is, that we as parents, are also worrying about the very same things.

But the most important thing in this whole chaotic nightmare of a year is this: if you are able to manage your worries as a parent and if you can help your child to talk about his or her worries and if you are able to soothe your child when he or she is scared or overwhelmed or angry or feeling hopeless about the future, your child will be OK.  

That is not to say that this is easy.  In this pandemic, in this political climate, there is a lot for us as parents to worry about.  Containing our own anxiety is not simple.  With the 24-hour news cycle it is common to feel anxious and oversaturated with bad news.  

But it is important for us as parents figure out how to manage our anxiety so we DON’T pass it all on to our children. For some, this means limiting news intake.  For others it means having frequent talks with a partner or friend about all the frightening things going on.  For others a daily run or yoga session is mandatory. Whatever you need to do to tamp down your own anxiety, this will be helpful for you in being the best parent you can be.

And this is also not to say that if we can manage our own anxiety, this pandemic experience will not affect our children.  It will.  But the truth is that we do not know yet exactly how it will.  Your child is living through an historic and unprecedented event.  There will be stories to tell for years to come.  But as to how much damage is being inflicted on children by this experience?  I suspect less than we think.

In part 1 of this series I spoke about the protective effect that having parents present and emotionally available has on children even during the worst that life has to offer.  This is an enduring truth. When children have parents available to them who are able to be reasonable and rational about the risks and the danger (at least most of the time) and to talk about these things openly, generally children will be OK. This does not mean that you cannot be irritable, that you cannot have a lapse in patience, that you cannot shut your door and need a break on a regular basis – all those things are normal – it just means that if you can be there for your children when it really counts – when they are frightened or need to talk – you are providing a vital and protective function that is more powerful even than COVID.