Aurélie Azoug took a seat in her office, breathing in the silence. It was the day she had fantasized about for months — one she thought would be full of relief and excitement as she finally got the opportunity to work uninterrupted.
Azoug and her husband had been working remotely since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic with limited child care. Their 3-year-old had returned to day care, but their 6-month-old, Joséphine, had been home with them as they juggled her and their job duties from their home in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Azoug’s days, punctuated by attending to Joséphine’s cries, were hardly conducive to work.
Last month, after they found a nanny who was vaccinated who could watch Joséphine, Azoug returned to her office.
But instead of the room feeling peaceful, Azoug said, it felt too quiet. Azoug’s arms, normally weighed down by Joséphine, felt strangely empty. With tears welling up in her eyes, Azoug realized she was experiencing something she had not anticipated feeling after getting time away from her kids: separation anxiety.
“I was not expecting it. I was looking forward to this day for so long,” she said. “I was so tired of feeling pulled in both directions all day, every day.”
As offices open back up, camps welcome cooped-up kids and vaccinations make more time away from home possible, families are reacclimating to being apart from one another.
For some households, it comes after having spent nearly every waking hour together during the pandemic, when children logged on to remote learning side by side with parents who were working from home.
And while a lot of exhausted parents have enthusiastically welcomed this break away from their kids at last, many also find it jarring — even as their children embrace it.
Lawrence Campbell, of Charlotte, North Carolina, had his 5-year-old daughter, Hannah, home for remote kindergarten all school year, and he recently dropped her off for her first day of camp. He and his wife watched Hannah walk in, her backpack bouncing behind her. The first day with her out of the house, he said, was “really, really strange.”
“Every 30 minutes or so, I was wondering how she was doing,” said Campbell, a programming manager.
In most cases, parents’ anxiety will be temporary as they get used to time apart from their kids again, psychologists say. And it’s important that parents not transfer their own worries onto their children.
“Kids are going to be watching you for cues about how to cope and navigate situations,” said Erlanger “Earl” Turner, a child psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Pepperdine University. “If you have some anxiety or you verbalize worries about that separation, they’re going to pick up on that and potentially be more nervous, or nervous if they weren’t before.”
Don’t say ‘I’m going to miss you!’ and other tips
Both parents and children may have a hard time saying goodbye at first, said Mary Alvord, a psychologist and co-author of “Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens: A Workbook to Break the Nine Thought Habits That Are Holding You Back.” She added that most will not have true separation anxiety disorder, which is characterized by excessive distress over leaving loved ones.
Still, run-of-the-mill separation anxiety may be more intense than it was before the coronavirus upended our lives, Alvord said.
“What’s been so fascinating about the pandemic and all the restrictions and all the losses and all the grief mixed into one is it’s just unleashed so many different emotional states from people that they have been caught off-guard sometimes,” she said.
Alvord suggested gradually easing into being apart, if possible. That might mean dropping a child off at a relative’s house for a couple of hours or at a swim lesson before sending them off to a full day of camp — and then commending them on how brave they were.
For kids who feel uncomfortable about being away from parents, “don’t make a big deal of it,” Turner said.
“Don’t say, ‘I’m going to miss you!’ That’s going to make it worse,” he said.
And for both parents and children, Turner suggested journaling — either about your fears and feelings or about what you are grateful for in the form of a gratitude list.
“There are going to be some kids who are really excited about going to camp or back to school, but there will also be kids who are anxious and worried,” he said.
‘Enjoy the newfound freedom’
To help cope with her separation anxiety when she returned to her office, Azoug, the Oklahoma mother, busied herself by having lunches with colleagues she had not seen in person since before the pandemic.
“What helped me is to actually enjoy the newfound freedom,” she said, adding that the separation anxiety did not last for long but that it was “very powerful.”
Chaneisly González, the mother of a daughter, 4, and a son, 8, who lives in the Bronx, New York, has always had trouble being apart from her children, both of whom were home doing remote school since March 2020.
She said that the few nights out she has had with friends recently have been even harder on her mentally but that walking her kids through what they should do while she is out has helped her.
“I’ll tell them: ‘Look, I took out your PJs. Make sure you brush your teeth.’ I give them a little rundown, and that makes me feel a little bit more relaxed,” she said.
Other parents have found it is important to follow their children’s lead.
Michelle Mauk, a Los Angeles art outsource director for Riot Games, a video game company, felt anxious when she sent her son Milo, 8, to his first day of camp this month. She spent the day glued to her phone, worried that camp might call to tell her something had gone wrong.
The day went fine, but the camp, an outdoor music camp, was not to Milo’s liking. It was too hot and too loud. Instead of forcing him to go again, Mauk pulled him out. Later on in the summer, Milo will go to a science camp and an art camp, and while Mauk is a little nervous to try new camps again, Milo is excited.
“I feel very lucky, because he’s not a clingy person,” she said. “Having a kid that doesn’t mind trying stuff makes the separation a little easier.”
“Focus on what’s right about this.”
Experts recommend that parents remind themselves of the positives of being apart from their children. Gaining independence is a normal, necessary part of childhood that was disrupted this past year, they said.
“Even if a parent is worried, they need to say: ‘What are some skills that I’ve given my child this year? What are the good things that have come of it, and what are going to be the good things that will come of this next phase?'” Alvord said. “Focus on what’s right about this.”