When back to school means separation anxiety

When back to school means separation anxiety

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Back-to-school season comes with plenty of excitement, but it can also bring on some (or a lot of) anxiety. At least that's how it turned out at our house.

Starting kindergarten was easy for my first child, but with my second, it was an entirely different story. For weeks, she cried and cried in the morning at home and while I walked her to class. At bedtime every night, she would tell us her worries about all the things that might go wrong the next day. It was heartbreaking.

Thankfully, she got over it as the year progressed; and naively, I thought we'd seen the last of that negative reaction to going to school.

Not so fast: The beginning of first grade brought with it the same challenges. We had many mornings when she said she didn't feel well, refused to go into the classroom, and ranted about all the reasons school was horrible. Again, things gradually improved. But now we knew we had work to do.

So before second grade began, we got proactive and found a child therapist. We were optimistic, but what we didn't quite expect was how much those visits would benefit all of us. Anxiety isn't something I've experienced much myself, so it had actually been difficult for me to empathize with my daughter about it. I just didn't know enough about her struggle, and realized I needed new tools to help her manage her feelings.

Our therapist recommended a book called The Invisible String, and then did a cool activity with us based on the book's teachings. While I sat in the waiting room, I held onto one end of a long piece of yarn that we had run into the office, while my daughter held onto the other end behind the door.

All during the session, my daughter would tug on the yarn and I'd tug back, letting her know I was there with her. We continued this arrangement at the next appointment, then the next. And before long, when we thought she was ready, we just took the string away. My then 7-year-old was able to understand that I was still there, even though she couldn't see me.

It was eye-opening for me to learn how common anxiety is for children. My daughter is not alone, and thanks to our therapist and the strategies she's teaching us, we're learning together.

For other moms and dads who are dealing with an anxious child, here are some tips for helping your children cope:

  1. Ask about, understand, and acknowledge your child's concerns. It can be hard for kids to articulate their feelings, so ask them specifically about what makes them upset or nervous. Assure them that it's totally normal to feel this way and that other kids feel this way, too.
  2. Talk with their teachers and/or school counselor. It's important for your child's teachers to know what's going on. You're a team, and they can help ease the transition from home to school. Guidance counselors can also periodically check on children who are having trouble starting school. My daughter's teacher allowed her to hang outside the classroom first thing in the morning if she needed time to get herself together before coming in. She didn't need to do it every day, but it made a big difference knowing she had that option.
  3. Ensure they are getting adequate sleep. Mornings after my daughter had gone to bed late were significantly worse than those after she'd gotten a good night's sleep. Being overly tired can trigger those anxious feelings.
  4. Read a book together. I think that any family dealing with any sort of separation (school, moving, even a death in the family) should read the amazing book The Invisible String. Our family is also a big fan of the "What to Do When You" books. The series features workbooks on all sorts of emotions that parent and child can go through together. They have one titled "What to Do When You Don't Want to Be Apart" that specifically deals with separation anxiety.
  5. Help them feel connected to you even when you're apart. Draw something on each other's hands – My daughter and I draw a heart on each other's hand each morning. It fades throughout the day, but it's a good reminder that just because you can't see something doesn't mean it's not there. (Temporary) tattoos can work well for this too.

  1. Bracelets – Matching parent/child bracelets have become a big thing. It helps kids feel connected to their parents throughout the day, knowing that they are wearing one, too. Amazon has some great options: see Mommy & Me and Pinky Promise.
  2. Pom-poms or key chains on book bags or lunch boxes – Similar to the bracelet idea, get matching key chains or create pom-poms from string and your child can hang one on their book bag and Mom or Dad can put one on their purse or briefcase. So when your child gets nervous, they can check in at their cubby and have the reminder that they'll see their parent soon.

As with all things in parenting, it helps to be patient and show yourself and your child some forbearance and grace. Some kids will deal with or develop anxiety well into middle and high school.

One of our editors recently shared that she and her middle-schooler pretend their necklaces have magic powers. "We put the pendants – green tourmaline – together and say, 'Twin powers activate!' We pretend to recharge them each time she goes off to do something that takes courage, which sometimes includes just going to school. Then she uses her pendant as a touchstone."

The start of something new is often challenging for all kids, from preschool to college. Big hugs to all the parents dealing with it: You've got this!

Opinions expressed by parent contributors are their own.

Watch the video: Separation anxiety and starting schoolday care - Maggie Dent (October 2022).

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