Separation Anxiety: Dos and Don’ts to Help Your Child (and you) Be Brave

Crying children clinging desperately to legs, arms, and necks. Parents trying to console young ones while fighting back their own tears. Cadets trying to keep order. Bells sounding. Panic. Screams.

While these words could describe some rare, chaotic scene, they also describe the normal start of every school day for many families around the world. Emotions run high, especially now, as summer comes to a close and kids head into classrooms, some of them for the first time.

Sure, it’s hard to find a child that’s excited about back to school. Certainly there are some who are happy about seeing friends again, and some who see a new grade level as a rite of passage, but when you get down to it, most would pick a summer without homework over early morning bus rides and math class. But for so many kids, their raw emotions go well beyond back-to-school blues, and their panic-stricken faces have nothing to do with math. They’re dealing with separation anxiety.

Furthermore, the kids aren’t the only ones panicking! Caregivers, too, scrabble to find the right words, the right thing to say or do to ease their child’s fears. It’s not easy to know how to fix it. But there are some approaches that are more helpful than others, and there are also some things you may have been doing that are less helpful than you think.

What is separation anxiety?

The first thing to know is that separation anxiety in children is normal. Like other forms of anxiety, it served a very useful evolutionary function: it kept kids close to those who would protect them against the very real dangers of a prehistoric world. And it continues to protect them from threats today. Kids’ brains are naturally programmed to fear distance from their parents. And parents, you, too, are wired to feel anxious when your babies aren’t close, when they’re out-of-site and under someone else’s supervision. The object is to recognize when there are no real dangers, and to know when to let go of the anxiety, not eliminate it.

Of course, there are some more severe cases when a child experiences abnormal levels of separation anxiety. If the anxiety interferes with friendships, results in sustained physical illness, if the child refuses to go to school, or if the anxieties are no longer age-appropriate, a doctor may diagnose separation anxiety disorder and cultivate a treatment plan.

But here’s the good news: normal levels of separation anxiety are much more common and can be managed at home with a little planning and patience.

Enough already … what can I do?!?

Let’s face it: these tools are just as much about helping you as they are about helping your child. It hurts to see them sad, and nothing makes you feel worse as a parent than walking away from your baby when he or she is in tears. You instinct is to fix quickly and comfort. However, if you focus on a plan to help them get stronger and more resilient, as opposed to “fixing” their fear, you’ll both feel better in the long run.

Dos and Don’ts

DO start talking about what’s about to happen before it happens. Make a plan. Is it the first day of school that has them worried? Start talking about it a week before, including details about how you’ll pick them up again at the end of the day. Start a countdown calendar to give them perspective on when school actually starts. Has it already started? Talk about each upcoming day during bedtime the night before. Help them prepare their backpacks, pick out an outfit, select their lunch items, all in advance. See where this is going? The fewer surprises, the better.

DON’T introduce the idea of worry or fear if they’re not showing any signs of those emotions. Maybe they’re just fine marching into the school. If they are, try not to say things like “are you nervous about your first day?” or “you’re so brave to go off on your own!” If they didn’t think they should be nervous before, they’re to start wondering about the reasons they should be.

DO show them their school environments before they need to go on their own. Is there a playground outside for recesses? Bring them there to play some evening. Is there an open house or a meet the teacher night? Take advantage so you can walk into the building with them and help them get familiar. “Look here’s the locker where you can keep your coat,” or “it looks like the bathroom is right down this hallway, and the sinks are just your size.” Meeting the school staff and seeing their space can help with your anxiety, too.

DON’T go overboard. Set a healthy limit for the amount of hand-holding your child can expect from you. Perhaps you introduce him or her to the new teacher or caregiver, but you encourage the child to walk up and say goodbye on their own. Once you’ve shown them their locker, ask them to remind you where it was. By pulling back just enough in the right places, you’re teaching them that they’re capable of short bursts of independence. You may need to remind them of those victories later.

DO create a goodbye routine and stick to it. You can do this in advance, also. Maybe it’s a secret handshake. Maybe it’s a kiss on the cheek that you assure them will stay there all day. Maybe you give them a coin or a small stuffie that they can give back to you when you pick them up. Whatever routine you decide on, the most important thing is to leave when it’s done, and not get baited into staying longer, or doing the routine again, or giving one last hug. Set the expectation that goodbye means goodbye … until you see them after school.

DON’T linger too long. Perhaps we just made this point, but it’s worth emphasizing. Nobody doubts the pain of walking away from your child if he or she is upset and scared. But they’re smart, and if you linger, they’ll learn quickly that their tears mean you won’t leave. Nobody is suggesting that the tears aren’t genuine; they really are upset, and that’s perfectly normal. That said, if they have an option between clinging to you, or learning their own skills of independence and resilience, they’ll likely choose you … and they’ll know the tears will keep you there.

DO your best to appear calm and in control of your own emotions. Even if your heart is burning inside. Even if this is your youngest baby and she’s going off to school and next thing you know she’ll be moving out and you just can’t help but be sad. Try to keep it all on the inside. Put on a brave face and show your child that everything is under control. Hiding emotions from kids isn’t always a best practice, but remember, this is about helping them feel secure without you. They don’t want to leave you while you’re crying any more than you want to leave them.

DON’T sneak out when they’re not looking. I know the temptation is there; “he’s not crying now and his back is turned and if I just slip out now we can avoid tears.” Seems logical enough. Until you remember that this is about building long-term resilience, and not about short-term avoidance. Once they figure out you’ve snuck out on them, they’ll go into the next day with less trust and more fear.

DO help them feel comfortable with their emotions. Again, some level of separation anxiety is very normal. Tell them it’s natural. Explain to them how some fear can keep them safe from danger. Then, reassure them that they WILL be safe and you’ll return for them, all without belittling their fears. “I understand you’re worried and that’s okay. But I promise that I’ll be there when school ends, just like I’m here when you wake up every morning.” There are some great children’s books on the subject also. Reading a book like The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn is a great way for your child to connect a character’s emotions to their own, normalizing the experience for them.

DON’T lure them with rewards or threaten them with consequences. “If you stop crying and get through your day, I’ll buy you ice cream,” or “if you don’t go in there, then no TV for you tonight,” may seem like reasonable strategies, but rewards and consequences are tools for dealing with behavior, and separation anxiety isn’t a behavior. It’s a natural, instinctual reaction that they will learn to control with help and support.

DO give them calming language and logic to talk to their own brains. “Let’s take a breath together. I know you feel afraid right now. That’s normal. Your brain is telling you to be afraid. Remember how we talked about anxiety? Let’s look around together. Do you see anything to fear? Does anything look dangerous to you right now? I see your teacher and we know he’s nice because we met him. I see other children your age, and some of them are playing games. Can you point and show me any danger? Is it possible your brain is tricking you into thinking there is danger when there is really not? Let’s take one more breath together, and then we’ll be ready to do our secret handshake, and I’ll see you again in this same spot when school is done.”

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