In many sectors of the world, life is returning to normal following the stay-at-home orders and other restrictions that were in place during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the Department of Health and Human Services extended the COVID public health emergency for an additional three months in April 2022, this extension ends mid-July. There is talk of another extension, but many businesses are back to normal operation, schools are returning to traditional operation, and in-person activities like concerts, festivals, and sporting events have resumed.
Despite the fact that most of the world is opening back up, some kids have continued to stay at home, opting out of extracurricular activities and other events. Some have even maintained online schooling, as peers have returned to the classroom. So, why are some kids staying home? In some cases, families may have opted to continue with new routines developed during the pandemic, but in other cases, children may be staying at home because of anxiety.
The Anxiety Associated with Returning to Normal Life
Going off to school and spending time away from mom and dad is a normal part of transitioning from early childhood to the school-aged period, and most children adjust after they become acclimated to the new routine. As the Child Mind Institute explains, the pandemic changed things, because children got used to being at home with their parents. When they returned to school, some experienced an increase in anxiety due to the change in routine.
Post-pandemic anxiety may be especially distressing for children with a history of separation anxiety or social anxiety disorder. According to experts, children with these types of anxiety likely experienced a reduction in symptoms during the pandemic. Safe at home, they were not faced with the pressure of going off to school and interacting with others. On the other hand, when met with the reality of returning to school, children who live with social or separation anxiety likely experienced a return of symptoms, making it difficult for them to engage in school and participate in extracurricular activities.
Changes to Family Life
While some children may be shying away from leaving home because of anxiety, in other cases, families may have simply changed their approach to life in the midst of the pandemic. Without the hustle and bustle of dropping kids off at school or daycare, commuting to work, and running off to sports practices in the evening, families were left with more time to spend together. For once, regular family dinners walks in the park, and movie nights were possible.
Some families decided that the slower pace and simple pleasures of the pandemic should continue, even after stay-at-home orders were relaxed. In fact, a recent article in The Washington Post describes some pandemic-related changes as the “better normal.” Parents interviewed for the article reported that they enjoyed the flexibility of working from home as well as simple routines like taking time to read or take family walks.
As the pandemic subsides and the world opens back up, some parents may have decided to replace their children’s overpacked schedules with more time at home. Instead of rushing between sports practices and piano lessons most nights of the week, kids are enjoying time with family, which is one effect of the pandemic that may be worth hanging onto.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Most of us are happy to have the worst parts of the COVID-19 pandemic behind us, as it’s no secret that social isolation and fears associated with contracting the virus created significant psychological distress. That being said, for many people, slowing down for a bit and having extra time at home wasn’t all bad. Families had the opportunity to reconnect with each other, and even develop healthy habits like exercising together and reading each night.
If your children are staying at home more because your family has decided to continue some of the new routines developed during the pandemic, there is certainly value in holding on to positive changes. On the other hand, if anxiety is causing your child to miss significant amounts of school or miss out on enjoyable activities, like recreational sports or school clubs, it’s probably time to intervene. In some cases, individual therapy, including telemental therapry for those with anxiety over leaving home, may be a suitable course of action.
If children simply have cold feet over returning to their pre-pandemic routine, it can be helpful to validate their feelings, by telling them that it’s okay to be a little nervous and that you’re proud of them for going back to school. It’s also beneficial to establish a regular routine, and give them practice with spending time away from home. You might drop them off with a babysitter or relative for a few hours, or sign them up for a church event outside of the home.
Often, anxiety will subside with time, support, and encouragement. If symptoms are persistent or severe, on the other hand, it might be time to seek professional intervention. When anxiety becomes excessive and interferes with daily life, a child may have a diagnosable anxiety disorder. In this case, working with a therapist can help children to process their emotions, discuss what it is that is upsetting them about leaving home and develop different ways of thinking. Children who show intense fear over going to school may have separation anxiety or social anxiety, but treatment can help them to become more comfortable with returning to their normal routine.