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What to do About School Refusal or Separation Anxiety in kids as COVID Restrictions Ease

by Heather Andronicos

If we think about how uncertain and confusing the last few months have been for us adults, it’s easy to imagine how much more frightening the experience has been for kids. Many young people have risen admirably to the challenge and adjusted to new expectations and routines, even without the benefit of an adult’s brain development to process the situation. This is why it may seem unexpected if your cool-as-a-cucumber child who adapted seamlessly to lockdown is suddenly experiencing school refusal or separation anxiety at the prospect of returning to school. If this happens to you, please know that this is a completely normal reaction to an abnormal event, even in kids with no previous history of anxiety. We would expect to see difficulties for young people adjusting after any long period of absence from school. However, if you are feeling concerned, here are some things to remember.


Houston, we have a problem

Especially if your child has not experienced separation anxiety or school refusal before, it may be tempting to respond with things like ‘but you usually love school’ or ‘aren’t you excited to see your friends?’ Responding this way may have the unintentional consequence of minimising their concerns. A lot has changed since they were last carefree and running around the school oval. An alternative response is to ask questions to try and understand their fears or worries about the situation. Whatever your child’s concerns are, you can validate their feelings by saying things like ‘I know it’s been really scary, and you’ve been really brave’ or ‘it’s very normal to feel that way’.

Children do not process information the same way adults do, and you may realise they have taken the TV news or something you have said out of context, ending up with an inflated sense of risk or danger. If this is the case, you can then easily give them new, easy-to-understand and accurate information about why they are at very low risk of harm and how adults are working together to keep everyone safe. If you need assistance, online you can find a range of social stories about coronavirus such as this one.


Prior preparation promotes post-pandemic persistence

Once you have a clear idea of the return-to-school timeline, you and your family can begin to mirror old routines a few weeks ahead. By practicing usual school wake-up times, mealtimes and sleep schedules, it may feel less jarring than if children were suddenly expected to resume their pre-coronavirus activities. You can also help build their confidence by travelling all or part of their school route together ahead of time and taking progressively longer trips away from the house to help them no longer associate ‘outside’ with ‘dangerous’. Part of your preparation could also include spending gradually longer time periods apart during the day, such as in different areas of the house, to support comfortable solitude. 

Similar to modelling old routines, be mindful of modelling healthy emotions to your kids. This does not mean unrealistic levels of optimism, or willfully pretending everything is just ‘back to normal’ straight away. Normalising emotions like uncertainty and fear may help give your kids healthier expectations and feel less shame talking to you if they’re having a hard time.


It takes a village

It is important to send the message early and consistently that your child will not be going through this process alone. As a family, ensure to maintain some quality time together so that children feel less like they’re ‘losing’ you back to the outside world. This may be regular family meetings to talk openly about how everyone is feeling adjusting back to old routines and should include descriptive praise of how resilient each family member is being by trying their best.

If possible, allow reintegration early to aspects of the school environment in line with the school’s advice. If restrictions in your area allow, slowly increasing interaction with school friends and neighbours may help reduce a sudden ‘flood’ of new people back into your child’s life. Be familiar with any new processes for school such as staggered start times or adjusted drop offs/pickups, and do practice runs of these before the first day. As many schools are not allowing adults on campus, utilise your child’s siblings and friends as supports, to reduce anxiety and the feeling that they are going it alone. It’s also very advisable to talk to the school if you have any concerns – given the scale of what’s happened, it’s incredibly unlikely that your child is the only one experiencing some adjustment anxieties. Teachers and other school officials have probably planned for exactly this and may have some resources or strategies to support your family. 

Finally, just as your child is not alone in this, your family isn’t either. Although this situation is unprecedented, we would usually expect to start seeing kids bouncing back after a significant change within a few weeks. Children are surprisingly resilient and adaptive, and with support this challenge can present an opportunity to learn valuable lessons about problem-solving and overcoming difficult experiences. However, if as time passes you are concerned your child is not bouncing back, don’t be afraid to seek support. In Queensland, Parentline is available 7 days a week on 1300 301 300. For support tailored to your unique family situation, Lilley Place psychologists are also available.

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