Ashley Gray’s 10-year-old daughter had always been a carefree, easygoing kid. But something changed last fall.
Ms. Gray had gone out to dinner with her sister-in-law. It was her first night away from her family in months. Throughout the evening, Ms. Gray’s daughter sent her a barrage of panicked texts. “Mom are you okay?” “Mommy, why aren’t you answering?” “Mommy, when will you be home?”
Ms. Gray didn’t think much of it, but a few weeks ago, a TikTok video her daughter had created made her see that evening in a new light.
“I am scared of my mom leaving and not coming back,” her daughter said in the video.
“This is a child where I would pick her up from daycare when she was little and she would run and hide because she didn’t want to leave,” Ms. Gray said.
The pandemic has created the perfect storm of conditions for some kids to experience separation anxiety, psychologists say. The danger posed by COVID-19 can translate into a general fear of the outside world. For kids who have become accustomed to spending every waking hour with their parents, that general fear can be triggered whenever they are separated, whether it’s a parent going out for dinner or a child heading off to camp. There are ways for parents to address the issue, and for most kids, separation anxiety will be short-lived, although some extreme cases may require counselling, psychologists say.
Pandemics, particularly COVID-19, bring out extremes in behaviour, said Steven Taylor, a professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia and author of The Psychology of Pandemics: Preparing for the Next Global Outbreak of Infectious Disease.
“Some kids just can’t wait to get back to school, can’t wait to hang out with their friends, they’re sick of being at home. So there’s that extreme. And then there’s the other extreme of kids who have become increasingly anxious during COVID-19 and fearful for their parents or their grandparents,” he said.
Separation anxiety is the most common anxiety disorder in children under the age of 12, according to Anxiety Canada, a non-profit organization. Approximately 4 per cent of children will suffer from the disorder, and although it typically decreases with age, it can continue into adulthood. It can even begin in adulthood.
Most children first experience separation anxiety when they start preschool or kindergarten, said Daniel Chorney, a Halifax-based psychologist.
The pandemic has conditioned many families to being together around the clock. As people ease back to normal life, some will have to deal with the anxieties triggered by that change, Dr. Chorney said.
“Our brains are always adjusting to whatever we’re most used to,” he said. “Now that we have to go back from the new normal to the old normal, we have to adjust again.”
Dana Whitfield’s daughter showed no signs of separation anxiety when she started preschool last summer. But she has begun to suffer from it over the past several months as lockdowns have continued, said Ms. Whitfield, an assistant to a financial planner who lives in Victoria, B.C.
“She won’t go upstairs on her own,” Ms. Whitfield said of her daughter, who is now three-and-a-half-years old. “She’ll go to the park with her dad and then start crying because I’m not there.”
Ms. Whitfield understands her daughter’s anxieties because she now experiences them herself.
“When my husband drives my daughter to preschool, if I hear sirens when they’re gone, I’m instantly terrified that something has happened,” she said. “The world just doesn’t seem as safe as it used to.”
Ms. Gray has tried to talk to her daughter about her fears.
“Why would I not come back?” she has asked.
Although her daughter can’t make sense of it, it is still a genuine source of panic, Ms. Gray said.
“There’s just something about me being gone. She has this fear that something is going to happen to me when I am out,” she said.
Having recently begun a new career as a real estate agent, Ms. Gray worries how her daughter will react when she has to go out more in the evenings to show homes to clients.
“Everyone is in survival mode right now, but what happens when that’s over?” she said.
Most children who are experiencing separation anxiety can be relieved of it if parents follow a few relatively simple steps, said Peter Szatmari, chief of the Child and Youth Mental Health Collaborative of Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, the Hospital for Sick Children and the University of Toronto.
“It’s practising going out, being separated,” he said. “Just going out in to the backyard, walking down the street and slowly increasing the extent of independence as time goes on. Small steps and each positive step rewarded in some way.”
Kids who have separation anxiety disorder may not respond to these small steps and require counselling, Dr. Szatmari said.
As the return to normal inches closer, Ms. Whitfield put it more bluntly.
“It’s almost like we’re going to have to retrain ourselves to be okay,” she said.
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