Separation Anxiety Solves for Back to School

Ask Dr. Bronwyn

Separation Anxiety Solves for Back to School

Heading back to school can be anxiety-inducing for parents and children, particularly the pre-school set. Here, our resident development expert, Dr. Bronwyn Charlton of seedlingsgroup, gives her best advice for the smoothest transition possible.

A few days/weeks prior:

Set up some play dates. If possible, facilitate connections to other kids in the class by scheduling some play dates in advance.

Get back to pre-summer bedtimes. A few days prior to the start of school get everyone back on their regular bedtimes; wake-up times too.

Create a morning routine. Routines provide a sense of safety, encourage independence and reduce nagging. Discuss with your child morning tasks, and create a morning routine that you’ll stick to. Use visual prompts with pictures and words to depict the steps (e.g., brush teeth, get dressed, eat breakfast, etc.) Start practicing a few days early to identify any glitches.

Familiarize your child with her school and classroom. If your child is new to the school, try to get her as familiar with it as possible before the first day. Visit the playground, peek in the classrooms, find out if there will be a class pet and talk to her about her teachers. Exposure is great for coping.

Enquire about the school’s separation policy and describe it to your child. Do you walk him to the classroom? Remain in the back of the classroom until told to leave? Say goodbye at the door? Make sure you’re clear on your school’s policy and let your child know the plan.

Develop a goodbye ritual. Practice how you’ll say goodbye. Rituals like a handshake or a secret shared sentiment make separation a little easier.

Let your child be in control as much as possible. Allow her to feel some control by choosing her own backpack, lunch bag, school supplies, etc.

Read books. Share picture books about going to school for the first time, feeling nervous but brave, etc. Be careful not to introduce anxiety, if your child hasn’t expressed any.

The night before:

Get rest. Make sure everyone (including you) gets enough sleep.

Prepare for the morning. Choose clothes for you and your child, prep lunches/breakfast, pack backpacks/workbags, etc. the night before in order to diminish chaos, stress and challenges in the morning.

The morning of:

Don’t pass on your own anxiety. Make sure the jitters aren’t coming from you. Anxious parents send anxious kids to school.

Be ready. Get up before your child and get all the way ready.

Stay connected. Stay connected no matter what roadblocks you encounter. Listen with empathy. Don’t dismiss or fix your child’s fears. Validate feelings and express confidence.

Remind yourself that your child’s brain is in the driver’s seat, not him. Fearing the threat of the unknown, the alarm bells in your child’s brain might go on high alert, which is why anxiety can look like a tantrum (fight) or resistance (flight). Instead of fighting it, get him to flick on the relaxation response in his brain through mindful breathing (3 counts in, pause, 3 counts out) or getting active. Jumping up and down, running, skipping for a few minutes will help to turn off his brain’s alarm.

Don’t react, empower. If your child freaks out or refuses to leave, don’t get angry, because doing so will only make her feel ashamed or judged. Plus, chances are, it’s her brain that’s on lockdown and your yelling won’t sideline it’s drive to keep her safe. Instead, talk about how anxiety (or feeling scared) is actually a sign that she’s about to do something brave. Remind her of previous triumphs when she overcame anxiety and felt proud of herself and more confident as a result.

The actual moment of separation:

Be early. Arrive at the school a little early for drop off and pick up. Rushed children are often anxious children.

Make it a smooth handoff. Connect your child to a teacher or group of classmates as you depart.

Make the goodbye quick. Don’t prolong separation.

If gradual separation is encourage, don’t make eye contact. Bring something to read, and sit at the back of room simply as a secure base, not as an interactive partner. Keep your eyes on your book, not on your child. You want her to engage with the teacher, not you.

If your child cries or is upset, reassure yourself it’s not how he separates, but how he recovers. Tears are normal. At this point, you have to trust that your child is in good hands, with teachers well versed in helping children recover, acclimate, and delight in their new schooling experience.

Bronwyn Becker Charlton, Ph.D. received her doctorate in Developmental Psychology from Columbia University and is currently on the faculty at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in the Department of Pediatrics. She is also the co-founder of seedlingsgroup.