Picture this, the morning of the first day of school! It’s a very exciting but also scary day for children and guardians alike. You bring your child to their bus stop or drive them to school and everything seems fine until you start to say goodbye, then tears come. You may experience an array of different feelings as well. Frustration that you may be late to work, sadness that you have to experience your child being scared, or anger that your routine is now thrown off. Feeling these emotions is expected and many guardians go through this experience every year. Whether your child is 3 or 18, they may experience this in the beginning of the school year. They may fear being separated from you or anxious because they are experiencing something new.
One thing that should be recognized is separation anxiety is the most common type of anxiety disorder in children. The CDC has reported that approximately 6-16% of children, ages 3–17, struggle with this. This is a significant amount of children, but the good news is that a majority of children with separation anxiety only have it temporarily. If you find that your child is having trouble transitioning, then it may be time to reach out to their school counselor and/or find a therapist who specializes with children with anxiety. It is also important to remember that you are not alone and that these resources are available to you.
Let’s start with addressing some popular questions that you may have:
What does separation anxiety look like in children?
- Some symptoms to watch out for are clinging to people who are safe to them, showing distress or crying when not with a person they are used to, constant worry about parents leaving, refusing to sleep alone, nightmares about losing a loved one
Why does my child have separation anxiety?
- This is a great question! Every child is different and there can be many different reasons why a child may develop anxiety. Some of these techniques may work better for your children than others since every child’s experience is unique. Some children have shorter spurts of anxiety and this could be because the child fears the unknown. Think of times where you felt nervous walking into a new job, class, etc. The experience is similar for children, but with the added layer of not having experienced it before or not having past experiences to assure the child that they are safe.
- Your child may also have had experiences that have impacted them and caused separation anxiety. The most common reasons for persistent separation anxiety are deaths in the family, a family history of anxiety, trauma or big environmental changes such as divorce, natural disaster, relocation, etc. If you know or suspect your child has separation anxiety then it would be helpful to practice these tips a few weeks before the start of school.
- Visit the school before the first day and meet the teacher with your child
- Read books with your child about other children who are scared to attend school. I have listed some great books below to help with back to school anxiety
- If your child expresses worry about school, invite your child to talk about these emotions.
- Practice being a part from your child before school
- Deep breathing
- 5-4-3-2-1 5 things you see, 4 things you hear, 3 things you feel, 2 things you smell, 1 thing you taste
- Self Affirmations
- Tensing and relaxing major muscle groups (Progressive Muscle Relaxation) Click here for a guided relaxation exercise for children.
- Buy or make sensory tools that your child can bring to school. Click here to see DIY fidget toys that you can make with your child the night before school.
- Try your best to stay strong: It is inevitable that you will feel empathy for your child. You may even start to tear up on their first day. This is normal but try not to show too much of your fear or sadness to your child. Reach out to your own support system for help with this transition. Your child is already anxious and we want them to be able to process their own emotions without worrying about others in the moment.
What can guardians do after they drop their child off to ease their child anxiety?
- Keep promises, try your best to get to school or the bus stop on time so that your child does not have to wait for you to pick them up. Consistency is going to help your child feel safer.
- Give positive feedback when your child gets home. Giving them positive encouragement that will help build their confidence.
Lastly, remember to take care of yourself during this time. It may be a hard transition. Make a self care plan for yourself if you are having a hard time transitioning. You can also try talking with other parents about their experience and reach out for support if needed.
Hopefully this information will help you navigate how to best help the child in your life to cope when having anxiety before or during school. Remember you are not alone and we are here to help.