Original article by Hayley Goldberg, LMFT at Heart of Connecting.
August and September mark the start of a new school year. For some this comes with great excitement and joy, but for others it means uncertainty, fear and lots of tears – for both parents and kids. Whether it is a new milestone of starting preschool, heading on to kindergarten, or moving to a different classroom with new teachers and friends, change comes with anticipation. For children the main source of anxiety is not knowing what to expect. For parents we worry about the safety, group care, and happiness of our children while we are not there.
Although it is difficult, it’s important to remember that separation anxiety is a normal part of child development. It is natural for young children to feel anxious when you say goodbye. With empathy, understanding, and the coping strategies listed below you and your child can relieve some of the separation anxiety and enjoy an easier and more successful start to the new school year.
- Practice Separation. If your child is starting preschool soon start to leave them with a caregiver for brief periods of time. This can include a babysitter or dropping them off at a friend’s home for a time while you leave to go run some errands. To be more successful do not leave your toddler or preschooler for the first time when they are hungry or tired.
- Talk about school starting. It’s healthy for children to talk about their feelings. They do not benefit from “not thinking about it.” Read books about starting school. Let your children ask questions. Be empathetic about their feelings but also remind your child gently that they will be safe and well cared for when you are not there.
- Get the teacher involved. In order to ease your child’s transition into their new classroom it is helpful for the teacher to know some information about your child. Share with your child’s teacher about their eating, sleeping and toileting habits. Share information about what games they like to play, songs they like to sing, and what techniques you use at home to calm your child down when they are upset or anxious. Develop a team approach with your child’s teacher.
- Develop a “good-bye” ritual. Rituals are reassuring for kids as it helps your child know what to expect. They can be as simple as a wave through the window, a special hug, kiss, or a handshake. Begin this ritual now before school starts so it is familiar and comfortable to your child when you drop them off at school. Consistency is the key.
- Bring a familiar object. Let your child bring a little reminder of home. This can be anything that brings comfort and happiness to your child – a favorite toy, a blankie, or a family photo. Comfort objects can provide a real sense of security when children are in an unfamiliar environment.
- Leave without fanfare but don’t sneak away. Tell your child you are leaving and that you will return. Children feel more afraid if you suddenly disappear while they are distracted from you. Reassure your child that he or she will be just fine. Keep your goodbye short and sweet then go- don’t stall. Setting these limits will help your little one with the adjustment and provide for an easier separation as the days go on.
- Keep positive and calm during the separation. Children pick up on your mood. If you are nervous, anxious, or worried your child will pick up on this. If your child’s sees that you are positive and calm, you provide them with the opportunity to be calm too.
Remember, starting school is a positive milestone for you and your child. For some kids a complete and successful transition can take months. If your child has a bad first reaction to starting preschool, kindergarten, or starting a new school year, develop a team approach with your child’s teacher. Work together to help make school a positive part of your child’s new routine.