How to Handle Separation Anxiety as the School Year Begins

Filed under: Day Care & Education, Special Needs, Resources, Behavior: Toddlers & Preschoolers, Expert Advice: Toddlers & Preschoolers, Expert Advice: Big Kids, Development Health

Some children welcome the adventure of a new school year, eagerly heading off to explore the classroom and make friends, and barely noticing as you say goodbye. But for other children, every school day begins with tummy aches, frantic tears, and desperate drama.

If you have a child who struggles with separation anxiety, here are some tips for helping them successfully manage a new school year:

Develop a bond with your child's new teacher
During the school day, your child's teacher becomes her source of security and comfort. Visit the classroom before school begins and help your child forge a special connection with her new teacher. Look for common interests, and help the teacher begin to take a personal interest in your child, to strengthen a natural attachment between them.

Build friendships with classmates
Having a buddy can make all the difference in the world for a child who's reluctant to part from you. Arrange a visit to the park or the cupcake shop with a future classmate before school begins, to create a sense of familiarity on that all-important first day of school.

Create routines
Invite your child to choose what to put into his lunch or, encourage her to lay out the outfit she'll wear tomorrow. Make sure to move through the morning tasks in a structured, relaxed way, to minimize chaos.

Ensure your child is equipped to cope with big feelings
You know how much harder it is to handle upset when you're tired or hungry? That's even more true for children. Little ones need to be well-fed (avoid the sugar breakfasts!) and well-rested to handle the emotional turmoil that separation can bring.

Create parting and reuniting rituals
Choose a special phrase that you and your child say to each other when you part, and weave it into your goodbye ritual. "Hugs and kisses and see you soon!" Focus less on the time you'll be apart, and more on what you'll do when you reconnect. Tell your child that as you move through your day, you're both to pick something special to share with each other. Let that be part of your focus when you reunite, rather than dwelling on how much you missed one another.

Give your child a way to hold onto you during the day
Place a special note or object in their lunch box (your scarf or a family) that reminds him that he's still connected to you. Be aware that for some children, reminders of home can bring on tears, so ask the teacher if this is helping or hurting.

Don't prolong the goodbyes
Children sense when parents are uncertain; your indecisiveness about parting will fuel their distress. Say your goodbyes with lots of hugs and kisses and reassurance, but don't keep returning if their upset escalates.

Ask the teacher to help with the transition
Request that the teacher give your child a job to do right after drop off, like feeding the hamster or running a note to the office so they have the distraction of a transitional activity.

Let her vent
Allow your child to express her feelings, without making fun of her ("You're too old for this behavior!") or trying to talk her out of her fears with logic. Let her know that you understand that she misses you, and that it can be hard to be apart from people that we love, but that you know she'll be okay.

Be on time or early
A child who suffers from separation anxiety tends to panic when they see other parents in the pick up line and not their own. Try not to be late!

Avoid sending mixed messages
Children read their parents' emotions with extraordinary accuracy, and they look to us to tell them what is and isn't safe. If you're reluctant about sending your child to school -- for any reason -- deal with your ambivalence. Find a way to feel good about him heading off to school, and communicate that with not only your words, but your tone and body language.

These tips should help with general separation issues. If your child's anxiety continues or worsens, it's always a good idea to seek professional help from an experienced family therapist.

AdviceMama, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.