How to Handle Back-to-School Separation Anxiety
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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