It is natural for a young child to feel anxious about separating when starting the school year. It can also be a stressful time for parents. As a parent, the first thing to do is check in and be honest with yourself. Are there feelings of apprehension and dread about leaving your little one at school? Do you get frustrated or exasperated at your child’s resistance, meltdowns, and/or controlling behaviors? Do you have guilt or ambivalence about whether your child will be OK? It is natural to have mixed emotions about this big step. Gently acknowledging and taking care of your own feelings will help you find that calm, confident parent inside of yourself that your child is going to need during this transition.
The Morning(s) of School Days:
- Remind your child about the fun things that are happening at school that day and what the classroom will look like. Paint a mental picture for your child of what to expect.
- If your child is looking worried, say “I see that you have some worries and butterflies inside. And I know you can be brave!” Parents can say the same thing over and over, in a soothing tone. Soon the child may begin mimicking the message to themselves.
- Draw a heart or put a sticker on the child’s hand and on your own hand, and say every time your child looks at it throughout the day, you will think of each other.
- Together, make up a special goodbye handshake or secret silly parting ritual (e.g. tugging ears and then kissing the back of your child’s hands).
- Share things that you are carrying around to remind you of your child (e.g., photos on your phone, a drawing your child made) to show that while apart, you are ‘holding on’ to your child too.
- Being hungry can make separation issues much worse. Even a small protein snack just prior to leaving the house can help.
- As much as possible, focus your child’s attention into the reconnection after school. “After school, let’s sit on the hammock together and you can tell me the three most fun things you did at school today. I can’t wait to hear!”
- This is the time to maintain a stance of warm confidence.
- Arrive early if your child likes a bit more quiet and calm to get settled.
- Spend a bit of time talking about something fun or interesting you both see in the classroom.
- Once your child is attending to the other adult, give a hug or kiss and say goodbye with a warm confident smile. And leave. Resist lingering too long around the doorway or sneaking back and seeing how things are going.
- Finally and most importantly, have confidence in your child’s teacher to handle your child’s feelings and take care of your child. And importantly, believe in your child’s ability to cope.
Other things to keep in mind:
- At any stage in this process, your child may cry, cling, freeze, or become excessively controlling or aggressive. Your child’s frustrating or difficult behaviors are coming from deep instincts to elicit a response from caretakers to take action and remove the ‘threat’ (= being left at school). The child just wants to feel better again. Your child is not acting this way to upset or manipulate you.
- Children this age often don’t know how to calm themselves down in the moment, and are dependent on adults to help them feel more safe and secure. They may have no idea what is really making them anxious, so asking ‘why” is not going to be very productive.
- Saying “Calm down!” “Don’t be afraid!” “You’ll be fine!” are not very effective and may make the child more distressed. Instead, using a calm, soothing tone, say “I see that you are having a hard time. We’ll work through this together” “Let’s see what is in your new classroom.” “Your teacher is over there and looks so happy to see all the children!” “Let’s see if we can find your courage.” are examples of simple sentences to state over and over. If your child is irritated by hearing these types of verbal encouragements, instead convey your belief in them through your patient body language and steady tone.
- It can be particularly exasperating when your distressed child resists your attempts to soothe or calm down, so stay tuned into your own emotions and behavior when you feel your temperature start to rise. Your child will be very sensitive to your non-verbal cues and have a heightened focus on your tone and body language. Try to maintain a stance of calm confidence.
- It may sometimes be less emotionally charged if another trusted adult drops off the child, such as a grandparent, older sibling, or another caregiver. Consider going with a school buddy or a neighborhood friend.
- Some children may not exhibit separation anxiety for a few weeks into school, once the novelty has worn off and it really sinks in that this is not temporary. Or a child’s anxiety may reappear after long holidays or after an illness. Better to expect it will happen rather than repeatedly get surprised.
- Some children will be upset and have a meltdown at pickup when they see you, or when you get home. This is likely because your child is reminded of the separation and may feel safe enough to let out his or her anxiety and frustration at you. Or your child is really tired and has had a long day at school. Your child’s brain is developing and learning so much now, and there are many new things to figure out. But with lots of love and confidence in your child’s abilities, you’ll both get through this milestone!
The article is adapted from Seperation Anxiety During the First Days of Kindergarten by Stephenie Gold, Dr. Lynn Miller, and Katia Jitlina.