The doctor is in: Separation anxiety caused by COVID

How can I help a preschooler who cries whenever someone leaves because he is afraid of not seeing people for a long time due to the virus?

It is not uncommon for toddlers and preschoolers to worry about the safety of their caregivers or loved ones. But when taken in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, where case rates are skyrocketing and the death toll continues to rise, young children may find their fears becoming reality. The pandemic has also created disruptions to routines and predictability in interactions that give children (and adults) a sense of emotional security.  Here are some thoughts on how to help your child feel safe and secure during these unprecedented times.  

Young children rely on their caregivers to help them understand and deal with their emotions. One way caregivers can start to do this is by helping label what emotion a child is feeling by using clues from their body language, facial expressions and tone of voice. This can help give children the language to associate with what they are feeling on the inside. Children also rely on caregivers to help them soothe and regulate their emotions. This may involve giving comfort, reassurance, or empathizing with them in the moments they are upset so that they can then learn how to handle strong emotions themselves when they are older. 

It’s helpful to recognize that there are going to be circumstances where your child may be more emotionally sensitive. When children (and adults) are more tired, hungry or sick, they are going to have fewer resources to help them manage emotions. Know that you may see more tears at the end of the day or at the end of busy visits with family, and your child may need a bit more time to soothe and calm down. Sometimes offering clear, predictable limits around timing of separations (e.g., one more story or in 5 minutes you need to clean up so we can say our goodbyes to grandma) may help transitions go smoother.  

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Make time to play with your child. Play offers children a space to process feelings and develop problem-solving skills. Children often work through things that are on their minds during play. For children worried about the “bug,” you may notice their play involves more people getting hurt, having to go to the doctor/hospital, or even just characters having to spend time apart from each other. If you notice your child’s drawings or pretend play reflecting some of these ideas, you can comment on your observations (e.g., “It sounds like your action figure is really missing his grandma”) or ask what happens next in the story or drawing. When caregivers follow their child’s lead during play, they can gain a lot of insight into their child’s internal world.    

— Laura Hlavaty, Clinical/Pediatric Psychologist, Akron Children’s Hospital

Photo provided by Akron Children’s Hospital