It's that time of year again. Kids are returning to school, which creates a lot of emotions for children and parents alike. While some are happy about the return and getting back to routines, others struggle. This time stirs up a lot of emotions, stress, and even causes separation anxiety.
What is separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety is a normal part of development in children. Children generally outgrow separation anxiety when they are toddlers, but it may still occur in the preschool years. This is especially true if your child is starting school at a young age or is not used to being away from parents.
Episodes of separation anxiety should be short-lived. Children typically adjust to changes quickly and do not have ongoing issues. If your child continues to have trouble, consider speaking with their healthcare provider.
Your child may be suffering from separation anxiety if they start having some of the following symptoms:
- Having nightmares about separation
- Worrying about being separated from family or getting lost
- Continually refusing to go to school
- Fearing being alone
- Making frequent complaints of illness like stomach aches, headaches, or other pains
- Having a fear of sleeping away from home
- Becoming very clingy
- Having meltdowns, panic attacks, or tantrums during times of separation
- Demonstrating extreme worry about losing a parent or loved one
- Constantly worrying about their own safety
- Refusing to sleep alone
Symptoms can present in children of any age, though they can be somewhat different as children get older.
Separation anxiety due to school
Remember, the jitters can be normal for children returning or going to school for the first time. However, this shouldn’t last long. Once you establish new routines and habits, the nervousness should pass.
After a few weeks, if you think your child is still struggling, there may be more going on. Look for signs that stress or anxiety is still present:
- Avoiding normal activities outside of school
- Complaining of being sick
- Conflicting with family and friends
- Fighting over separating from parents or caregivers to go to school
- Needing constant reassurance that things are fine
Handling separation anxiety and school
If you notice symptoms lasting longer than a few weeks and your child isn't improving, you can help them.
Give them your attention. When your child is struggling, give them your full attention, even if for a short time. This will help them feel loved and can make temporary goodbyes easier. It will also help them understand that you will be coming back.
Be on their level. Remember that your child is a child, regardless of their age. Talk to them in a way they can understand and be specific. For example, if your child can’t tell time, telling them what time you’ll return will not ease their mind.
Keep your promises. Build trust in your relationship by making promises you know you can keep (for example, returning when you say you will). Be sure not to promise you will be back if you aren’t able to stick to it. Children don’t easily forget.
Make goodbye short and sweet. Create a short goodbye routine that gets you out quickly.
This may be difficult, but faster is better because more time will make it harder on both you and your little one. Drawing the process out also prolongs the anxiety.
Consistency is key. Create and stick to a routine that works best for you and your kid. Every time you drop them off or send them to school, keep your routine the same. This will help establish trust and decrease anxiety.
Practice makes perfect. Create chances to separate from your child outside of school time to give them practice. Let them spend time with family members, babysitters, playdates, or other childcare options. Even if the time is short, a little practice can make things go smoother later.
Remain calm. It can be stressful for you when your child gets worked up during goodbyes. Things will go better if you keep your routine calm, loving, and firm every time. Be reassuring during your goodbyes so your little one knows they are safe, loved, and you will be back for them.
Don’t be frustrated, upset, or angry. Also, build in extra time when you know goodbyes are challenging. This keeps you from feeling rushed or pressured and projecting those feelings on your child, too.
It’s all about timing. If possible, avoid starting daycare or a new caregiver between 8 and 12 months of age, since this is when separation anxiety is most common.
When possible, avoid leaving when your child feels on edge. Times of hunger, tiredness, or irritability can increase emotions including separation anxiety.
Talk about it. Ask your child how they are feeling and listen while they tell you. Use open-ended questions to allow them to express their emotions:
- Don’t use questions that only require “yes” or “no” answers.
- Don’t ask questions that include feelings; for example, “Are you sad?” is often met with an answer such as, “Yes, I am,” even if that isn’t quite what the child is feeling.
- Ask specifics such as, “How do you feel about going to school?” This allows them to think about how they feel and express it.
You can always share a story that shows you were like them and overcame the feelings. This can help ease their stress while helping them relate better to you. It can also help them open up, as they will find it easier to talk to you and tell you what is bothering them. Communication is very important.
When to get more help
If a month has gone by and your child is still dealing with these symptoms, consider seeking more support. Your healthcare provider can be a great resource. They may refer your child to mental health counselors, therapists, or psychologists. Evaluation and/or treatment may be necessary to help manage stress and separation anxiety.
Preventing separation anxiety
Seeking treatment as soon as possible can help decrease symptoms. There is no definite cause for separation anxiety, so it can be difficult to prevent. To an extent, it is a normal part of a child’s development that needs to take place.
Returning to school can be a stressful time for young children and teenagers. The stress of changing or starting a routine can lead to separation anxiety. When your child has to be away from family, it can cause high emotions. Separation anxiety generally passes quickly. If it lasts longer than a few weeks, it may be necessary to seek help for your child.
Returning to school creates a lot of emotions for children and parents.
Separation anxiety is a normal part of a child’s development that needs to take place.
Children generally outgrow separation anxiety when they are toddlers, but it may also arise in the preschool years.
Symptoms can present in children of any age.
Signs of stress or anxiety include avoidance of normal activities, complaints of being sick, conflicts with family and friends, or fights over separating.
Mayo Clinic. Separation anxiety disorder
Stanford Medicine Children’s Health. Separation Anxiety Disorder in Children
Healthy Children. How to Ease Your Child’s Separation Anxiety
Nemours Kids Health. Separation Anxiety
Johns Hopkins Medicine. 5 Tips to Ease Back-to-School Anxiety
The University of Utah. Navigating Back-to-school stress and anxiety