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What To Do About Back-To-School Separation Anxiety

We’re packing the last few days of summer with trips to the beach and walks to our neighborhood ice cream shop. And while we’re soaking up what’s left of break, the new school year looms ahead. My 4- and 3-year-old are gearing up for transitional kindergarten and preschool, and I know there are going to be lots of tears when it comes time to drop them off. Last year when they started preschool, I was the one crying outside their classroom door, but since we welcomed a new baby to the family, both have become extra clingy. The separation anxiety is real and has been a huge struggle for us.

“Anxiety is a normal part of growing up and fundamentally, a human experience,” says licensed clinical psychologist Jazmine McCoy. “Separation anxiety in particular is actually a normal part of development.”

According to Dr. McCoy, starting school for the first time or going back to school after weeks of being “off” is a big change. “Change, good or bad, inevitably will cause some degree of stress,” she shares. “[For kids,] the stress of the change and having to say goodbye to their parents is completely natural.”

Below, McCoy breaks down the different ways separation anxiety shows itself and offers tips on how we can help prepare our kids for the new school year! Back-to-school is a transition for the whole family, so allow for some grace during this time. 

Ways That Separation Anxiety Manifests Itself

Separation anxiety often looks like crying, clinginess, and tantrums. Your child may also display regressive behaviors, such as potty accidents. It is common for children to temporarily lose ground on a mastered task when challenged by a new developmental task. 

Separation anxiety varies widely among children. Nearly all children between the ages of 9 months and 3 years experience separation anxiety to some degree. Younger children often fear unfamiliar adults and prefer their primary attachment figure. They also do not have a good concept of time nor do they understand that when their parents leave, that they are nearby and coming back. However, separation anxiety can happen in school-age children as well and it can begin later in the school year.

It’s important to also be on the lookout for more serious concerns as this may mean your child is experiencing a Separation Anxiety Disorder. 

Signs of Separation Anxiety Disorder include:

  • School refusal 
  • Excessive distress and persistent worries related to separations
  • Physical complaints (e.g., stomachaches, headaches, vomiting)
  • Sleep disturbance and/or change in eating patterns 

Call your child’s pediatrician or a mental health professional if you suspect this. 

Ways To Help Your Child Feel Excited About School

Helping our children feel excited about school begins with us. If we are not truly excited about them going to school, they will pick up on these feelings. Continuously check in with yourself regarding these feelings and remember change (both positive and negative) can bring stress and mixed feelings. 

It’s perfectly normal for parents to feel worried about this transition. It’s hard to trust a new person or a new school with our little ones. Just know, your child can pick up on these feelings, which may be contributing to her/his own separation anxiety. 

It might be helpful to talk with your spouse, family, friends, and other moms about the feelings that come up. Also, get to know the school and your child’s teachers as much as possible so that you feel comfortable with the environment. 

Books are a great way to educate and explore your child’s feelings about school. They can also help kids get excited about school by allowing them to envision themselves in the new environment. 

Some great books to check out:

  • Daniel Goes to School by Becky Friedman
  • Llama Llama Misses Mama by Anna Dewdney
  • Bye-Bye Time by Elizabeth Verdick 
  • The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn
  • I Don’t Want to Go to School: Helping Children Cope with Separation Anxiety by Pando LICSW, Nancy and Kathy Voerg

Sharing your favorite memories of school can help your child feel excited for this new chapter. Talk about aspects you enjoyed most (such as playing outside at recess, making new friends, doing fun projects, etc.) to help connect and normalize going to school. You may also share that you felt nervous too, at first, and what helped you overcome your fears. Keep it short and sweet, and invite your kids to share their own thoughts/feelings and ask you questions. Keeping communication open will help children feel more comfortable with this new transition. 

Tips For Helping Kids Experiencing Separation Anxiety About Leaving Mom And/Or Home

Practice Separation Gradually.

Start with short periods of separation and then gradually work your way up. 

Always Be Consistent And Predictable When It Comes To Separations. 

Leave when you say you’re going to leave and come back when you say you’re going to come back.

Stick To Your Routine.

Children thrive off of routine and structure, especially during periods of transitions and stress. Be sure to stick to the normal routine that allows for adequate sleep and time for breakfast. Also, consider pre-packing lunches the night before and waking your kids 15-20 minutes earlier to allow for extra time with you. This will help for a smoother morning routine.

Use A Transitional Object.

Items such as a doll, teddy bear, or blanket can help bring comfort to your child.

In Between Separations, Validate And Process Your Child’s Emotions Through Play And Art. 

Books are also a good way to open up discussion and normalize separation anxiety. Try to spend at least 5 to 10 minutes of uninterrupted play time with your child every day. 

Create A Goodbye Ritual And Always Say “Goodbye.” 

Explain where you’re going and when you’re coming back. Keep it brief and upbeat. Also, consider leaving a love note in your child’s lunch box, which will help your child remember you love her and will return soon. 

Follow Your Intuition.

And make sure you’re 100% confident in your child’s new caregiver/school. Convey this confidence to your child. 

Ravelle Worthington is a wife, momma of three, and the founder of Mommy Brain. Follow her on Instagram here.
Join the Mommy Brain private community where members can have open and honest discussions about all the parts of motherhood, whether that’s parent/child-related, self-care, life after becoming a mom, divorce, career changes, intimacy with your partner — there are many layers to who we are as women and as mothers. This is the space to talk about it all!
By Mommy Brain, August 16, 2019
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