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Parents need to beware ‘separation anxiety’ in children caused byCovid crisis, says expert

That’s the advice of Dr Zoi Nikiforidou, a Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Studies at Liverpool Hope University.

She says school and nursery closures in the wake of the Coronavirus crisis means youngsters are spending unprecedented lengths of time with parents – often in close proximity due to social distancing measures. 

And when the time does eventually come for youngsters to return to the classroom, separation anxiety could be a ‘real issue’ for families. 

Dr Nikiforidou, who specialises in research about children and risk, explains: “The Coronavirus crisis is unprecedented in modern times. 

“We don’t know how the pandemic might contribute to the mental wellbeing of children further down the line, or how they’ll interpret the situation. 

“But one thing I feel we do need to be mindful about is potential issues with separation anxiety. 

“Your child could grow accustomed to having you around, to being with you 24/7 – and they’re probably really enjoying that time together, too. 

“Young children in particular are living through a new reality. They will have settled into a new routine which has provided them with a safety net to escape the uncertainty.  

“They think, ‘This is what happens now. This is how I pass my day. And this is what I now do with my family, right here at home.’ If that routine changes once more, they could be left feeling quite vulnerable. 

“So when they do go back to nursery or school, we need to be mindful about a degree of separation anxiety that might not have been present before – or for separation anxiety problems to return in children where parents thought they’d overcome it.”

According to the NHS, separation anxiety typically affects children aged between six months and three years – but it can also impact on older kids and even adolescents. 

The unique situation now unfolding across the globe means there may be issues for nurseries and both primary and secondary schools. 

And separation anxiety doesn’t just manifest as a refusal to leave the house, it can also result in sleep disturbance as well as physical complaints such as headaches, stomachaches and even vomiting. 

Dr Nikiforidou adds: “It’s my view that nurseries and schools need to think about temporary provisions to address issues of separation anxiety when children are eventually allowed to return to the classrooms or daycare centres, like they always do. 

“It should be discussed between families and schools and other settings in order to make the transition smooth and less overwhelming for the child. We are partners in this and need to trust each other..

“Schools could perhaps think about staggered returns, or if parents have the luxury of time there could be plans put in place for mums and dads to stay for an hour or so with the child in the school environment to help the transition, if needed.”

Some NHS tips for coping with separation anxiety include talking to your child about the exciting things you can do later when school ends, to leave the child with something comforting, like a favourite toy, and to make goodbyes confident and happy. 

Dr Nikiforidou says: “Remember that this will be a temporary problem, if it happens at all. 

“Your child is highly adaptable and resilient, so don’t underestimate their capacity for coping in the end. And also remember that it’s something children have to tackle as they negotiate the pathway of their lives. 

“It’s just a matter of how we can encourage the move to be as stress-free as possible by maintaining an open dialogue between children, parents, teachers and other practitioners.”

Here Dr Nikiforidou, a former Kindergarten teacher, reveals some of her other suggestions for protecting your child’s wellbeing during the Covid-19 shut-down: 

Maintain a steady routine: 

“Any change can provoke reactions in children that are challenging for parents. And what children need more than anything right now is a sense of routine, which provides them with a degree of safety. They crave a trusted, sequential order every day because it makes them feel safe and secure. And if they know they can rely on, and trust, us as parents it means they’ll be more likely to share any thoughts or worries they might have about what we’re all living through right now, rather than bottling it up and becoming withdrawn. As parents, we play a crucial role here.”

Seize the opportunity: 

“Hectic lifestyles get in the way. But now is the perfect time to really get to know our children. Spend quality time with them – something we might not have been able to do in normal circumstances. Find out what really makes them tick. It’s an opportunity for bonding, for doing little silly things that bring you closer together as a family.” 

Find alternative ways to ‘talk’ about Coronavirus: 

“Your child will no doubt be aware of Coronavirus. They’ll know it’s the reason they can’t go and play in the park any more. And while they might not be vocalising their feelings, they’re most likely trying to make sense of it all internally. Rather than sitting them down and saying, ‘So, how are you feeling today? Are you worried about Coronavirus?’, I’d suggest finding creative ways to talk about it without actually discussing it. Try making a drawing that reflects the current reality. And you can then use that as a prompt to share ideas, to uncover, and to talk on a deeper level about what they’re thinking. Similarly you could use puppets, dolls or even Lego with younger children as a way to trigger their interest and to engage with a certain scenario or story that links to the Coronavirus issue. This abstract play encourages children to bring their thoughts, ideas, solutions to the fore, and they’re able to process that information more effectively rather than becoming anxious about it.” 

Try to let the children initiate the discussion: 

“I realise we don’t want to alarm children, but at the same time we should not shield them from conversations about Coronavirus. The key is to try to let them instigate the discussion instead of us constantly being on top of them. It’s about watching out for the subtle clues that they might be trying to initiate a chat, rather than waiting for it to become a real issue.”

Keep an eye out for unusual behaviours:

“Again, you need to be aware that children won’t necessarily vocalise how they’re feeling – and any fears and anxieties might manifest in unusual or bad behaviours. They’re not necessarily being naughty – it’s their way of externalising how they’re feeling, which is most likely frustration.”

Rest assured, they’ll catch up with school: 

“Yes, parents are expected to encourage children’s involvement with school work during this crisis. And the school has a responsibility to set that work. But it’s important you don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t quite go according to plan, because you’re NOT expected to be a replacement teacher. There is, clearly, still lots of doubt as to when schools might be able to re-open. It may be some months yet. But don’t worry – you’ll be amazed at how quickly they’ll be able to catch up however long they’ve been away. Their brains and their minds are working so hard, particularly the younger ones, that a gap of six months can be replaced very quickly through careful educational activities when they return to the classroom.”

Beware screen time: 

“The major danger in all of this, for me, is excessive use of screen time. And I realise that’s not what parents will want to hear right now! I fear it could have major consequences for the mental and social wellbeing of children. I speak from personal experience that while parents might wish to resist, sometimes screen time is the thing that works to keep children busy and entertained. Adults are just the same – we might all be using screen time more because we can’t leave the home as much as we’d like. But it affects our health and our cognitive thinking. And a future reduction in screen time needs to be managed in advance now. Start making plans as to how you might scale-down screen time in the coming weeks and months before they return to school, and talk to children well in advance of it actually happening.” 

Encourage social skills: 

“Being socially isolated is clearly not what we want for our children. And if this happens for a prolonged period of time, it could have a real negative implication on their learned social skills. That’s why video call sessions with their friends and extended family could be such an important activity. I’d try to arrange these as much as possible. And the best way to do this with children is to set up some sort of game they can play together. It’s about engaging and being part of something away from the immediate home.” 

Remember you’re a role model – so keep your temper in check:  

“Parents are vital in a child’s life right now – even more so than usual. We need to be there for them. And we need to be open to them, sharing our own thoughts and potential fears. And if parents are arguing or constantly in conflict, it’s going to make children feel really insecure. Conflicts are, of course, part of relationships. But strive to keep them to minor disagreements rather than full blown rows.”

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