Siraguse gave birth to her third child in December. Then the pandemic hit, eviscerating daily routines and social activities. Beckett’s episodes worsened. Instead of just crying, Beckett screams, throws himself on the floor, and can’t calm down unless he’s held and rocked. “I’ve never seen anxiety like his before,” Siraguse said. Beckett is being evaluated for anxiety disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Parents who are concerned that their child may be showing signs of separation anxiety disorder should see a therapist who specializes in treating pediatric anxiety as early as possible, Dr. Lebowitz said. If left untreated, anxiety disorders increase the risk of other mental health conditions such as depression. Treatment generally involves using cognitive behavioral therapy to help kids learn to manage symptoms plus training to help parents manage tantrums.
De-escalate meltdowns and prevent future ones
There are also evidence-based strategies that all parents can use to try to prevent or de-escalate meltdowns that come from separation anxiety. When children are calm enough to listen, validate their feelings by acknowledging that you understand why the situation makes them feel scared, and encourage them to practice being brave and trying an activity on their own. This strategy takes time and patience, but it’s more effective in the long term than giving in and trying to stay within children’s eyesight or allowing them to avoid situations involving separation, said Golda Ginsburg, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine.
“If you are always rescuing your child from anxiety-provoking situations, they never learn that they can master the situation on their own,” Dr. Ginsburg said. Parents can also inadvertently make separation anxiety worse by prolonging goodbyes and paying attention to tantrums, and forgetting to reward quiet acts of bravery, like playing alone or going to bed without fuss.
Finding opportunities for children to exercise their “brave muscles” and safely practice being away from their parents is especially tough in quarantine, said Paula Yanes-Lukin, Ph.D., director of psychology in the Children’s Day Unit at the Youth Treatment and Evaluation of Anxiety and Mood Program at Columbia University. If you suspect that your child might struggle with an upcoming event, like starting remote learning, returning to preschool or an overnight visit with family, practicing the routine a few days before can help your child prepare.
You can also teach your kids strategies they can use in situations that make them anxious, Dr. Yanes-Lukin added. One way is by giving them a transitional object — something small and personal that reminds your child of home — that they can keep in their pocket or cubby and retrieve when they need to feel a connection to loved ones.
Kids aren’t the only ones with tension. Anxious parents can exacerbate their children’s anxiety, so take steps to relieve your own stress, too. Sean Leacy, a father of four in Tacoma, Wash., takes a holistic approach to managing anxiety in his house. Two of Leacy’s children exhibit separation anxiety symptoms and have been diagnosed with sensory processing disorders. Leacy has stress management strategies individualized to each child, but he also credits City Dads Group, a nationwide parenting support group for fathers, for helping keep his own anxiety and parenting stress in check.