By Dr. Kim Grengs, Parent Coach
Is your child anxious about going back to school? Is separating from you difficult for your child? It might be at school, daycare, or another activity? It might be when you leave to go out shopping or for another reason. How do you know if it is normal or if it is something that you need to see your pediatrician about? Separation anxiety is real for many children.
Having difficulty separating from a parent for children does happen at some point in their life. This usually happens between the ages of 18 months and 3 years old. Children are clingy to some degree in the early years. They may show signs of being anxious about separating from a parent. How do you help your child with separation anxiety?
As a consequence of distance learning happening in March children have not been in school for an extended amount of time. As a result, this may create some anxiousness returning to school.
A place where they felt safe and had routine and boundaries ended abruptly. Hence the feeling of fear or uncertainty may be seen in many children when returning to school in September. So how can you help your child through this experience?
The main difference between normal separation anxiety and separation anxiety disorder is the intensity of your child’s fears and their reaction. If it is causing significant challenges academically, socially and emotionally then it would be wise to contact your pediatrician.
When symptoms are extreme reach out for more support. Additionally, symptoms may occur after a break from school or after a long-term illness. Therefore, you may notice the first symptoms of SAD appearing when your child is in 3rd or 4th grade.
Some of the symptoms of a child that is struggling with separation and may have Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD) could be:
- Refusing to sleep alone.
- Lots of worry when parted from home or family.
- Refusing to go to school.
- Frequent stomachs, headaches.
- Being very clingy.
- Refusal of going to school.
For example, a student that is struggling with separating from a parent may come into school and hold onto the parent so the parent cannot leave. Consequently, the child may also run after the parent, cry, or have a tantrum. It is almost like they are having a panic attack – they do not know how to act because they are so afraid of being separated from a parent.
Another example is when a child refuses to go to school. They will not get on the bus or leave their house. They may say they do not feel well. There have been times when parents get them in the car, but cannot get them out of the car once they get to school.
How can you help your child when they are struggling with separation anxiety? Here are some tips to help ease your child and you, the parent, through this:
- Practice. Practice being apart from each other. Introduce new people or places slowly. Invite the person, like a babysitter, over ahead of time to sit and play while you are still there. This will help your child feel more comfortable when it is time for you to leave.
- Be consistent. Have a routine for when you know that you will be leaving. Let your child know ahead of time where, when and with whom they will be with. Let them know when you will be returning and stay on time.
- Anticipate separation difficulty. Be prepared for transitions. This includes going to school or meeting friends or another activity that does not involve the parent staying at the same place as the child. Talk about it ahead of time to try and prepare your child using positive reinforcements.
- Offer choices. By offering your child choices it gives them a sense of control which may help them to be successful.
- Relaxation. Teach your child some relaxation techniques like breathing for a certain amount of time or using counting to a certain number and then counting backwards.
Easing separation anxiety at school
1. Communicate with the child’s teacher, school counselor, and possibly the principal about a plan for the child to return to school. Furthermore, if everyone is on the same page it goes much smoother.
2. If a child has been absent for an extended amount of time make sure to welcome them and give them time to reenter the school environment.
3. Provide them with a safe place to enter the school and possibly go sit in the office or a safe place for them for a certain amount of time. During that time they can do something they enjoy.
4. They may need to enter the school earlier than the other students.
5. A phone call home or some contact after the child has been in the school successfully is an option too. For some students they just need to hear the voice of a parent and know that they are safe.
6. Have a staff member or friend that could meet them in the office so they have a connection point.
7. Have a routine so they know what the expectations are for when they arrive at school.
Many children will be anxious returning to school. Communication with staff at your child’s school is so important. It will benefit your child and help them during times of discomfort and when they are feeling anxious. Set up a time to meet with staff and create a plan together that uses the child’s strengths.
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