How Families Can Detach From Quarantine Life

Little boy leaning on his mother in front of a school door

Verywell / Nusha Ashjaee

Returning to school each fall always brings a mix of excitement and nervousness as kids—and parents—anticipate what the upcoming school year will bring. This year, in addition to navigating back-to-school shopping and new teacher assignments, parents and their kids will be wrestling with the idea of how to separate from one another after having spent most of the previous school year at home.

Whether families learned entirely at home or in a hybrid setting that combined online and in-person learning, there are bound to be increased worries and concerns about returning to school full-time. That's especially so as the coronavirus continues to spread. Worries are likely to run the gamut, and include concerns about adjustments, changes, and safety.

With these issues in mind, how can families detach from one another and embrace the upcoming school year in healthy ways? Here's what you need to know about combating separation anxiety and approaching the school year with confidence and purpose.

Why Kids (and Parents) Might Have Trouble Separating

According to researchers, the post-pandemic school environment is expected to include significant changes and become a catalyst for separation problems. Part of this has to do with the fact that social distancing has led families to develop stronger dependencies on one another and increase attachments to their home environment, as well as develop new routines that have varied greatly from their pre-pandemic school routines.

"Big changes in routines can always be a little tough," explains Amy Morin, LCSW, a psychotherapist and best-selling author. "Kids might have enjoyed more flexibility and being able to eat lunch with their parents or ask them questions throughout the day. Not having instant access to parents during the day again might be a little rough at first."

Amy Morin, LCSW

Not having instant access to parents during the day again might be a little rough at first.

— Amy Morin, LCSW

Even before the pandemic began, separation anxiety was a significant issue, accounting for half of all referrals for mental health treatment for anxiety in children. Additionally, an estimated 4-5% of kids ages 9-10 struggle with separation anxiety.

These numbers are likely to increase due to the pandemic, says Kristin Rinehart, LISW-S, TTS, director of behavioral health services for Muskingum Valley Health Centers and owner of Changing Minds LLC.

"In my practice, anxiety has been the most diagnosed condition next to depression," Rinehart says. "There are higher expectations and more social issues for kids to think about. With the pandemic, this has increased the cases of anxiety, especially in honor students, due to new ways of learning and such a quick transition to remote learning." 

Signs and Symptoms of Separation Anxiety

  • Becoming distressed due to separation
  • Taking measures to avoid separation
  • Worrying that something will happen
  • Fearing the parent will not return
  • Clinging to the parent or caregiver
  • Crying or throwing a tantrum
  • Refusing to attend school or activities

According to Rinehart, being at home can be comforting for kids, when compared to the school environment. Sometimes they don't have to abide by the strict rules of school and expectations can be fewer, due to being in their own environment. All of these things can make separating even harder, she says.

"[During the pandemic] parents and children created a new routine that ended up being comfortable to them because they were in their safe place, a place that is predictable and is known," Rinehart says. "When kids and parents think about going back to school, they may get worried and anticipate how the change will create something new. As humans, [we have a tendency] to think of the 'what ifs' first, which can [mean thinking of] the worst thing that could happen rather than the best thing that could happen."

Nicole Cabrera, an author and mother of a teen and a young adult living in Florida, is concerned that separating from her teen son this fall will be difficult. She says she felt safe with him at home, not only because of the pandemic, but also because of the number of potential shootings his high school experienced prior to the pandemic.

"I personally think it will be very challenging for my son, starting high school as a sophomore," says Cabrera, whose son spent his freshman year at home and online. "It also will be challenging for me not to have him safe and protected in our home. He’s excited to return. Can’t wait. I am dreading it."

How to Address Separation Issues and Anxiety

Father consoling daughter

Verywell / Nusha Ashjaee

If you and your kids are feeling a little apprehensive about the upcoming school year, you are certainly not alone. Most people have concerns about what school will look like this fall, how their kids will adapt to the changes, and whether or not they will be safe sitting in full classrooms.

But there are things you can do to make the transition easier. Here are some tips to help you get through the school year in a healthy way.

Validate Their Feelings

When kids are feeling strong emotions or have intense fears, it's important to validate their feelings. Avoid minimizing how they are feeling or telling them that it's not that big of a deal. Kids need to know not only that their feelings are normal, but also that they can get through it.

"Rather than tell kids not to worry, normalize their feelings. Validate them and show that you understand that they’re concerned," suggests Morin. "Just being heard can help them feel a little better."

One way to help normalize their feelings is to share your own worries and concerns. Just be sure to tell them how you are coping with your feelings in healthy ways.

For instance, if making a plan helps you feel better, share that with them. Likewise, if you like to work out, journal, or read a favorite book, share that with them, too.

"Be honest with them about what you are going through," suggest Cabrera. "I think as a parent being vulnerable is the best gift to give to my kids. I let them know how I’m feeling and check in with them on how they are feeling. We hold family meetings where everyone gets equal time to share. It’s a safe place to sit and examine yourself, and find out exactly how [you are] feeling."

Practice Separating

Before school starts, it's important to practice being apart from one another, even if just for a short period of time. Doing so will help your kids get used to not spending every day with you and allow you to address any separation issues before the first day of school.

"Send them with a relative [or] a friend, or plan playdates so that you can practice time away," suggests Rinehart. "Remind yourself that you are preparing your child for change, for times that it is necessary to be away from them. Encourage them to have fun, meet new people, and support education as a fun exciting time for them."

Kristin Rinehart, LISW-S, TTS

Encourage them to have fun, meet new people, and support education as a fun exciting time for them.

— Kristin Rinehart, LISW-S, TTS

Then, when you reunite, do something fun together. Maybe play a board game, go for a walk, or ride bikes. Your kids will learn that being away from one another can be fun and so can coming back together again.

You also can talk about ways to celebrate the first day of school. Maybe you want to go for ice cream or plan a fun family activity. Let your kids engage in the planning so that they have something fun to look forward to after the first day of school.

"To separate from my kids, I have started going into my home office more often," says Haze Massey, an accountant, basketball coach and trainer, and a central Ohio father of seven girls ranging in age from 2 to 15. "My office is sectioned off so they pretty much have had their own routine even with me at home working. I think appreciating the time apart [while they are in school] will make us a closer unit."

Establish a Routine Now

The days of sleeping in, doing schoolwork in their PJs, and eating when they want are about to end. It's important to get kids in the mindset of attending school again.

Practice getting up in the morning, eating breakfast at a normal time, and getting out the door for school by going to the library or a park at the same time for a few days. Fortunately, kids and teens are fairly resilient. So, it should not take much time to get them back into the swing of things.

"I think it is important for parents to remember how important routines and structure are for kids," says Rinehart. "The school day provides the routine kids actually need for social and emotional growth. This routine also allows the parents to get back to a routine that will help them provide the care they need for themselves and their family."

Talk Through Concerns

Anytime you go through a change as a family, it's important to communicate regularly and consistently. Whether that comes in the form of one-on-one conversations, family dinners, or family meetings, the key is that you are talking to one another on a regular basis.

"We’ve had a lot of conversations," says Cabrera. "I knew this day was coming, and we’ve done our best to prepare mentally for it. I’m not sure how my anxiety will respond, but I’ll do my best to stay positive and support my son to the fullest. [Going back to school] is his wish and I will respect it."

Use Visualization

Rinehart suggests using the technique of visualization to help kids get through their day. Work with them to picture what their day might be like and to anticipate any challenges ahead of time. This way, you can address concerns before school starts and create a plan for dealing with obstacles.

"Have kids see themselves getting on the bus, going to school, having fun with friends, learning math, eating in the cafeteria, getting on the bus to go home, and seeing their parent smiling when they walk in the door," says Rinehart. "Parents can do the same thing for their workday or seeing their child have a great time at school to help increase positive emotion."

Be Flexible

You know your kids better than anyone, so you will likely know how well they are adjusting to being back in school. Keep tabs on your kids' feelings and develop a way for them to communicate when things are not going well.

"My son suffers from anxiety," says Cabrera. "So, I’ve taught him to meditate and breathe—he also uses the Headspace app on his phone. He knows he can call me if it gets too bad. I think having a plan for bad days is key. We have a text code. Texting 'not good and a sad face' means come get me while texting 'not OK, blah face' means I need a text message of support. I think having these in place are such a great support to my son."

How to Cope With COVID-19 Safety Concerns

Child resting chin on the swing

Verywell / Nusha Ashjaee

Not surprisingly, returning to school full-time in the middle of a pandemic has a number of parents and kids concerned about safety issues. Even with the use of masks—and vaccinations available for those 12 and older—parents may still wonder if it's truly safe.

But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), returning to school this fall is a priority for all the nation's schools. That said, the CDC has implemented some safety protocols that is is recommending schools follow. These include masking for students and staff and keeping desks a minimum of 3 feet apart. It also recommend regular cleaning and disinfecting practices.

You also may want to talk to your school's administrators or visit the COVID information section on the school website to determine what guidelines your school is implementing in order to keep staff and students safe.

For instance, some schools will be requiring masks and social distancing in classrooms. Others may have staggered start times to alleviate congestion in hallways or on buses. Additionally, the number of spectators permitted at school functions also may be limited. Make sure you know what to expect ahead of time and then let your kids know.

"It's important to understand what the schools are doing and trust that they are protecting our kids," says Massey. "I would continue to have an open line of communication with your children and school officials if there are any concerns you may have."

It's also important to be honest with your kids about what the school is doing and what they can expect. And leave any speculations you may have out of the conversation. You don't want to raise their expectations only to have to shoot them down again.

"Parents should not make promises they might not be able to keep," says Morin. "Don’t tell kids they are going to be in school all year or that they won’t have to wear masks this year. There is still a lot of uncertainty."

It's also important to remind kids that even though they are going back to school full-time, this does not mean that the pandemic is over or that they no longer have to take precautions. The virus is still out there, and there is still a risk of getting sick or passing the illness on to others.

"My biggest concern is them becoming content and forgetting there is still a very active and live virus out there that can harm those around them, including their baby sister, Mykinely," Massey says. "The girls have been really good about being aware and protecting their sister, as she has a history of heart and intestinal problems."

If your kids are particularly fearful about the risks associated with COVID-19, it's important to talk about healthy ways to deal with that fear, like drawing a picture or taking a few deep breaths, suggests Morin.

"Give kids confidence in their ability to handle uncomfortable emotions," Morin says. “You also can give kids a transition item like a picture or a small stuffed toy they can keep with them. Sometimes that helps kids deal with anxiety when they’re away from home.”

For older kids, you could try giving them a worry stone or having them put a favorite mantra on the lock screen of their phone. Then, when they are worried, they can hold the stone in their hand and rub it. Or, they can read the mantra and repeat it to themselves.

As for parents who are plagued with worry or anxiety, they should focus on modeling healthy coping strategies for their kids and look for ways to alleviate their own stress and concern. Self-care is really important, says Morin. She suggests focusing on things you can control and limiting media exposure, which can heighten stress and anxiety.

“Maybe take a breath and trust that the faculty at the schools are trained and prepared to keep them safe," suggests Massey. "Also, this is a good time to rediscover yourself, as this part of life may have been lost while working and parenting from home."  

A Word From Verywell

Going back to school full-time this fall is a big step for this country—one that has kids and parents both excited and apprehensive. While it's completely normal to be anxious about detaching from each other and your current routine, it's equally as important to ensure that you and your kids are able to separate from one another in healthy ways.

Be sure you encourage your kids’ adjustment by talking with them about their concerns and validating their feelings. Then, offer some tools for detaching from the quarantine life in a healthy way.

If, for some reason, your kids continue to struggle or don’t appear to be adapting, contact your healthcare provider for help. Together you can determine what your child needs to embrace school once again.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Pelaez M, Novak G. Returning to school: separation problems and anxiety in the age of pandemicsBehav Analysis Practice. 2020;13(3):521-526. doi:10.1007/s40617-020-00467-2

  2. Ehrenreich JT, Santucci LC, Weiner CL. Separation anxiety disorder in youth: phenomenology, assessment, and treatment. Psicol Conductual. 2008;16(3):389-412. doi:10.1901/jaba.2008.16-389

  3. Copeland WE, Angold A, Shanahan L, Costello EJ. Longitudinal patterns of anxiety from childhood to adulthood: The Great Smoky Mountains Study. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2014;53(1):21-33. doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2013.09.017

  4. Stanford Children's Health. Separation anxiety disorder in children.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Guidance for COVID-19 prevention in K-12 schools.

Additional Reading

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert.