Back to school separation anxiety

School is starting! What an exciting and stressful time. You’re probably rushing around purchasing school supplies and wondering how your child will separate at the door. Or maybe school has already started and your child is in the throws of separation anxiety, completely freaking out when you leave. Be assured, the transition can and will go smoothly, it’s just a matter of time and technique.

Transitions are almost always challenging for young people and that goes for both large and small transitions. Moving from bath time to bed can produce a lot of upset, so it makes sense that starting back to school (or starting school for the first time) would also cause some emotional ripples.

First, know that you are not alone. When I taught preschool there were always a few children in every class who had a difficult time separating at the beginning of the year. But after several weeks, everyone was transitioning joyfully.

Now, I’ll give you the same information and advice I gave the parents in the classroom that helped to resolve the upset quickly and fairly easily.

The most important thing about a morning school separation is that it is QUICK and that the parent is calm, comfortable, and relaxed. The more you can leave your own feelings of sadness, upset, and anxiety at home, the better your child will do.

I don’t mean to imply that you won’t HAVE upsetting feelings, just that you’ll do your best to experience and work through those feelings AWAY from the door of your child’s classroom. So, when you’re at the door, you’re projecting calm confidence, trust, and warmth. This is HUGE.

Why quick? The more time you spend helping your child get his things into his locker, making sure he has his lunch, asking the teacher about the schedule for the day, and giving him multiple hugs and kisses, the more time he has to recognize that you are uncomfortable (or that he is). Also, when your child sees you in and around his classroom, he begins to wonder why you can’t just spend your day at school with him. After all, you are one of his favorite people in the whole world, so why wouldn’t he want you to stick around?

What your child may fail to realize is that school is an opportunity for her to branch out socially and become more independent. It’s a growth opportunity and having a parent present could actually undermine her motivation to reach out to new friends.

But, when new friends and teachers are the only choice available, you’d be surprised how quickly children can acclimate and enjoy the new environment. Often, the kids who have the greatest separation anxiety are the same children who bond to the teachers and other kids quickly. The classroom becomes a new base of operations and they easily rely on their new community for the help and support they need. This is a very important skill.

Do you remember a time from your own childhood when you felt unsure, afraid, and you wanted to cling to someone or something familiar? Giving your child a keepsake, a slap bracelet, a hand stamp, or some other reminder of you can be a great way for your child to remain connected to you, even as she stretches her wings socially. But don’t go too crazy, leaving elaborate notes in her lunch every day. Take your cue from your child, what does she ask for and need?

Acknowledging your child’s feelings can help too, but again, be brief. Something like, “Honey, I know you’re feeling worried and that’s OK. I think some other kids are feeling the same way. If you need help, you can ask your teacher. I bet you’ll have a great day. I love you and I’ll see you at 3:00,” should be sufficient. And you can always talk more after school.

Next, if your child is having a difficult time separating, talk to his teacher and ask about their policy on separation anxiety. Some schools will call you if your child is inconsolable for longer than half an hour or so. Or it may be OK for you to call to check in. I always loved giving worried parents the news that their child was happily playing and working just minutes after they had left the room.

You’ve chosen to put your child in preschool, private, or public school for a host of reasons, so take a moment to ground yourself and feel into those reasons. You know what is best for your child, now it’s time to trust, let go, and enjoy the ride.

Have a wonderful week, Shelly

2 comments
Shelly
Shelly

Hey Jaime, Thanks for sharing this sweet story! I loved hearing about how your prepared your daughter for school and the way she expressed how excited she is about school was so precious. It sounds like she's doing great!

It also seems like you're handling things well. I hope I am as grounded and centered as you are when my little one starts kindergarten.

All the parents I know (including myself) are shocked at how quickly their kids grow up. Was there ever a point when YOU were upset about her starting school?

Jaime
Jaime

Great topic!
I just took my 5 year old to her first day of kindergarten. 6 months ago we started preparing. Doing 'school work' as she calls it, like writing in number and letter books, and having her copy her name. She may not have remembered what she wrote, but I think it gave her a sense of what she would be facing. When she got anxious about school, I would tell her it would be a great place to meet new kids and to have fun learning about new things and experiences. The part about 'other kids' really appealed to her. I also made the effort to have her spend time with other people, away from me. I love what you have to say about the parent's feelings. I am sure that if I was extremely emotional about her going, she would be scared. But I know taking a role in teaching her that this is going to be fun, and that she will like it has helped my girl make the transition so much easier. She said after she got out of her class on our way home 'mom I wish it was tomorrow', so I know she enjoyed it!
Jaime