How to Handle Back-to-School Separation Anxiety

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If you have a child entering preschool or kindergarten, the first days of school are likely to be filled with emotion, possibly compounded by separation anxiety that your child (or even you!) may experience. Learn how to combat this anxiety as your child faces new challenges and milestones of independence.

It’s the start of a new school year—and a new experience for your family if you have a child just entering preschool or kindergarten. The day is likely to be filled with emotion, possibly compounded by separation anxiety that your child (or even you!) may experience. Why is the first day of school stressful for some kids while others seem to breeze through it? And how should a parent, child, and teacher team up to best handle this new and potentially unsettling situation?

Your Child’s Temperament

Dr. Sucheta Connolly, director of the Pediatric Stress and Anxiety Disorders Clinic at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says parents need to examine their child’s history of dealing with separations. “What we know at this point is that children have their own unique temperaments, and that means that from a time a child is born we can notice that children respond to particular new situations differently from others. Some children are naturally shyer or hesitant in a new situation,” she says.

If your child seems especially attached to you, he or she may struggle more with beginning school. “Some children just have a harder time separating from the safety zone of their family,” says Connolly. Other indications of possible separation anxiety include a child’s past behavior when left on a play date or at a grandparent’s house.

Parents of an older child who sailed through the first day of school may be surprised to find a subsequent child cling to them on his or her first day. “One sibling may be very different from another,” says Connolly. “You have to look at each child and how they function in new situations.”

Preview School and Practice Separation

Young children are comfortable with a sense or predictability, and knowing what lies ahead can ease their nerves. “Take advantage of any opportunity that the school provides for you and your child to tour the school and meet the teacher,” says Dee Wilmans, an early childhood teacher in Fairfield, Ohio. “If you are unable to do this, call the school and ask if there is another time that you could visit.” During your tour, show your child the classroom, restrooms, library, and cafeteria if he or she will have lunch there—anywhere your child may be going throughout the day.

Beginning your daily “school routine” a week or two before classes start will help your child get comfortable with the new schedule. Adjust your child’s bedtime as necessary. Designate a special place for your child’s backpack and practice laying out clothes at night. A dress rehearsal where you run through your entire morning, including getting to school, can help calm everyone’s nerves.

If your child will be taking the bus, go for a drive along the bus route so it will become familiar. “Remember to remind your child that he or she will be on the bus with other children,” says Wilmans. “You could pretend to be the child next to your child on the bus and practice making conversation.”

Wilmans also recommends that a child start out the school year implementing the same routine that will be followed throughout the year. “Don’t drive your child to school [on the first day] if the rest of the year your child will have to ride the bus. Teachers and other staff are often more available to help students on the first day or week, and the transition could be harder later.”

Lastly, Connolly recommends practicing separations with your child if he or she is particularly apprehensive. If possible, leave him or her with a friend who will be in the same class at the start of the school year or even riding the same bus.

“If you know that your child tends to be anxious or afraid, you can even set up a bit of a reward program that helps the child practice,” says Connolly. “It’s OK to say directly to your child, ‘I can see that you’re worried about this.’ Let them know you are confident they can make it.”

Easing the Transition

It’s difficult to release your child into another’s care if he or she is worried or even clinging to you each day at class time. Following are additional suggestions for avoiding anxiety-filled moments: 

  • Be positive and upbeat. If you’re enthusiastic about school, your child may gain confidence from you.

  • If someone else special to the child such as a grandparent or a neighbor would be better at sending your child to school, ask them to help.

  • If you don’t know any of your child’s potential classmates or are new to an area, ask the school administration if they’ll place you in contact with another child who will attend your child’s school. If they won’t release another family’s phone number, they may give your number out to the family and ask them to contact you. Invite the child and his or her parents for a visit, or arrange to meet someplace so that your child can find a familiar face on the bus or in school.

  • Provide your child with a picture of you or the family that he or she can look at when feeling sad. “Communicate this with the teacher, and let her or him call the shots on where the picture is kept and when your child should be able to get it out,” suggests Wilmans.

  • Have a plan for where you will say goodbye and stick to it. Prolonged goodbyes can make the separation harder for both parent and child.

  • Talk with your child’s teacher about how you are feeling, and ask how your child is coping while in the classroom. “Often the child’s anxious behavior is solely for your benefit, and the teacher may not even know that you are having any difficulty,” says Wilmans.

Calming Your Own Anxieties

Parents may be surprised to find themselves experiencing mixed emotions and anxiety on the first day of school. While you will likely be excited about your child’s growing independence, you may be sad to officially leave the “baby days” behind and have concerns about your child’s well-being: Will my child make friends? Will he like his new teacher? Will she miss me? Will the house be too quiet without my child?

Connolly assures parents this is a normal and common reaction on the first day of school. “It’s hard for parents to separate from their children too,” she says. “You’re used to having that child be a part of your day, your life and daily activities—it’s a milestone for your child and you.”

Yet she strongly urges parents to squelch their anxiety in front of the kids, explaining that what is important is, “how we model as parents, how we cope with new situations and changes…children take their cues from us at that young age. Children watch their parents very closely.” Not only can kids pick up anxiety from parents, but they may also misunderstand the situation and feel they are causing the anxious parent to be upset.

“Children can tell if you are apprehensive and will often mirror your reaction. Your feelings as a parent are normal and should be expressed to another adult in private, not in front of your child,” agrees Wilmans. “It’s okay to cry, just try not to do it in front of your child.”

To help parents cope with the apprehension of seeing a child off to school, Wilmans suggests that parents keep open lines of communication with their child’s teacher and talk with other parents. They can also make a list of ways they would like to use their free time if they do not have other little ones at home.

Beyond the First Days

Both Connolly and Wilmans mention that separation anxiety can occur later than the first week of school. “In this case I would highly recommend communication with the teacher to see if there might be something happening in the classroom,” says Wilmans.

Connolly agrees, adding that if there is any type of stress for the child—a move, a death in the family or of a pet, for example—the parent should communicate with the teacher so he or she is aware of the child’s home circumstances.

The early days of school signal an important and exciting transition, as your child reaches new milestones and levels of independence and learning. Keeping communication channels open between you and your child, and between home and school, will foster the cooperation necessary for your child to thrive as she meets the challenges of this new phase in her life.

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