Returning to School: Separation Problems and Anxiety in the Age of Pandemics

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The shift to the postpandemic school environment will cause dramatic changes and is likely to increase separation problems. In this article, we look at the anxiety problems that some parents and their children might experience when school reopens after the COVID-19 lockdown. Using a behavioral theory of development, we provide suggestions for how to handle the departure and separation problems that may emerge as parents drop their children off at school. Many parents are unsure about how to handle anxiety or fear as their children return to school or have to visit other environments outside their homes. Social distancing has caused families to develop stronger dependencies at home and to create new routines that vary, in many instances greatly, from their prepandemic routines. Families are adjusting to the new “normal.” They are keeping their children busy with schoolwork as best they can. In particular, families have likely developed close attachment relationships. Families have been struggling with an unprecedented lockdown, and for many parents and their children, this extended period of family confinement and severe restrictions has been especially stressful, and the timing for returning to school is uncertain. We emphasize here that parents can be responsive to their children’s needs, plan ahead, provide reassurance, and depart firmly without vacillating, and we provide other tips to avoid inadvertently shaping children’s negative or anxiety behaviors as they go back to school. We offer some specific advice for parents and teachers to follow to prevent the departure and separation problems that typically develop during challenging behavioral interactions in school settings.