I was amazed to hear some mamas chatting the other day about how their kids are heading back to school in just a few weeks. What? Didn’t summer just start? The tot and I are planning on attending preschool in a month or so – her to have a fabulous time interacting with other two-year-olds, and me to squish and squash clay with all her wonderful friends. But, lurking in the corner is our ornery friend – separation anxiety. I’ve seen the beast up-close when the first weeks of school roll around and those kiddies sure aren’t excited about heading back to the classroom after that lovely long stretch of time at home with the family.
I wrote this article for Funderstanding awhile ago with some of my insights and ideas for easing those separation anxiety woes and figured it could use a good sprucing. Separation anxiety is a real challenge for kids and adults, but with persistence and patience, everyone can work through the tricky patch.
Just when you thought it was safe to go back to school, your child decides differently. Upon arrival, he screams, wails, clutches your clothes with a grip of steel, and refuses to be dropped-off. Many parents dread returning to school after the long summer break knowing full well they will be dealing with child separation anxiety issues.
Along with understanding what separation anxiety is, there are several simple ways to save the morning from separation anxiety meltdowns and ensure you and your child both have a wonderful day.
What is Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety is a healthy and normal way children express attachment. Babies often begin showing signs of separation anxiety around 4-7 months as they develop a sense of object permanence and understanding that items still exist when they leave the room. Children may show no sign of separation anxiety or difficulty playing or staying with others until hitting the preschool scene, and the permanence of the transition takes hold. And, the true understanding that mom or dad really leave the room for longer than a couple of minutes.
As children get older, their understanding of being “left” heightens and separation anxiety can become an ongoing frustration for parents and children. About 4% – 5% of kids suffer from separation anxiety disorder with a heightened sense of anxiety along with repeated refusal of attending daycare or school, concern of being kidnapped or lost, and difficulties sleeping. Luckily, most parents dealing with child separation anxiety issues are dealing with mild cases. But, even a mild case of separation anxiety can be a challenging situation.
Separation anxiety usually runs its course and children begin feeling comfortable and confident about transitioning to a school or daycare within a couple of weeks. The highest peaks for separation anxiety is often seen in children from 6 months until they are able to fully communicate but then can become an issue during later transitions, such as starting kindergarten, moving to a new home, or a family transition.
Dealing with Child Separation Anxiety
Instead of pulling that resistant child out of daycare or losing sleep thinking of solutions to elementary school drop-off, there are simple ways for dealing with child separation anxiety. Understanding that you aren’t the only parent dealing with these issues and realizing that others are ready and willing to help is the first step. Discussing separation anxiety issues with the child’s caregivers and teachers gets everyone on board for finding a solution to easing a child’s anxiety issues.
Along with sharing separation anxiety concerns with your school, there are several tricks that may help your anxious child. All children develop and behave differently, so understanding that there is no sure fix, or overnight solution for separation anxiety, is really important.
–Stay calm. This can be challenging while listening to your child whine and scream during drop-off, but understand that, as an adult, your consistency and calm will help the situation. Give your child a kiss and hug and quickly depart. Keeping your school information up to date ensures caregivers will be able to contact you if your child doesn’t eventually ease into his day. And, trust that they will contact you. Avoid calling every 5-minutes to double-check the screaming has stopped. Not only are you being overly concerned, you are taking caregivers away from what they should be doing – spending time with your child.
–Get your child to help. Ask the child what would help make drop-off easier and see what he suggests. You might be amazed when your child says that if he were able to wear his favorite outfit or bring a special item with him that it would help make things better. Double check with teachers to make sure this special item is acceptable and welcome at school, along with cueing them in with what is happening. Inviting your child to help solve the problem gives him ownership over the situation, helping to encourage positive decision-making and boosting self-esteem.
–Create a special parent-child good-bye moment. Some children benefit from having a special moment or routine that they fulfill each morning before drop off. That could be a quick handshake or a silly song – but something that is done between parent and child before every drop off. Accomplishing the routine creates security for the child and eases anxiety. When creating your special drop-off moment, make sure it is something that can realistically be accomplished each morning, and stick with the routine until the child has worked through separation anxiety issues.
–Pack some bubbles for the blues. Place a small container of bubbles in your child’s backpack and when his anxiety begins, encourage him to blow some bubbles. Not only does breathing (and blowing bubbles) help regulate stress and ease tension, it is a distraction from the issue at hand. He might even attract a couple of friends that want to blow bubbles, too, helping him move and transition into the school.
–Offer a reward. Bribery doesn’t hurt the situation, and most children understand that good behavior will reap benefits. Discuss rewards and expectations for the child before heading to school and when they are accomplished, provide the reward upon pick-up. This way, when he walks into the school with a brave face and gets through the day successfully, he has something exciting to look forward to.
–Have a cup of tea. Create a special time with your child to sit and have a cup of tea. Chamomile tea is safe for children and also has wonderful stress-soothing qualities. Along with sipping some warm tea, you can engage in conversation, allowing your child to comfortably express himself and talk about his worries and concerns. Talking things out always makes everyone feel better.
–Soothe with some lavender love. Giving your child a soothing lavender bath at night helps calm the nerves and relieves tension. It also helps set your child up for a good night’s sleep, so they are fresh and ready for a new day, potentially easing separation anxiety. Also, a nice long soak offers the opportunity for conversation, encouraging your child to talk about what scares him about drop off. Make sure to lend a positive listening ear along with lots of love and support. Lavender based lotions applied in the morning are also an option, giving him a chance to catch a soothing whiff throughout the day.
When Nothing Seems to Work
After seeming to try everything and the separation anxiety hasn’t waned, everyone might be ready for something different. It may be time to take a look at other potential issues that could be causing the child to have difficulty transitioning to school.
-Set up a conference with caregivers or teachers to learn more about the child’s day and if there is a conflict with another child or other issues within the school. Also, consider if there have been any changes at home that could be affecting the child’s transition to school, such as a big move, parental difficulties, or the addition of a new baby brother or sister.
-If a child is loosing sleep, repeatedly showing stress over being left, and is also showing other symptoms such as stomach and digestive issues, it might be time to make an appointment with your pediatrician.
-Take a look at how you are dealing with the separation anxiety. Children respond to their loved-one’s behavior, so setting a good example is imperative. Take care of yourself by getting a good night’s sleep, staying fit, and talking about your concerns with others.
Separation anxiety is a normal stage of child development, and no matter how bad things may seem now – this too shall pass.