Saying Goodbye Can Be Stressful
Easing separation anxiety for back to school.
It you’re a parent, you’ve probably been there – you’re trying to drop your kids off at school or camp and suddenly there are flushed faces, hot tears, pleading wails, and tiny fingers with a vice-like grip on your shirt. Sometimes this even happens when you are trying to get them to sleep in their own beds.
Separation anxiety is quite common in children, a normal developmental phase that they usually grow out of in time.
Each child’s temperament and emotional development are unique, as is their level of anxiety.
When dropping off your child at preschool for the first time, the new environment and unknown caregivers are an understandable trigger for separation anxiety. The most common symptoms in this scenario are usually clinging to the parent, crying, begging the parent to stay, and possibly a full-blown tantrum.
The best way to help both you and your child is to understand where your child is coming from, and starting there. Is your child afraid for their safety? If so, find ways to make them feel safe. Assure them that you are just a phone call away.
Are they frightened of the new environment?
Allow them to bring a stuffed “lovie” or blanket, something to remind them of the familiarity and comforts of home.
According to Dr. Ruby Natale, a pediatric psychology expert at the University of Miami Health System, other strategies that can ease worries include:
- Keep a consistent routine. When a child is familiar with a routine, and knows what to expect, transitions are easier to deal with.
- Practice being apart. When you have some down time with your child, practice being in different rooms, or leaving them with a trusted caregiver for short periods of time, such as when you need to run errands or grocery shop.
- Talk it out. Let your child know that it’s perfectly okay for them to feel afraid. Ask them why they feel a certain way, and talk about ways you can work on making them feel brave and safe together.
- Make a clean break. Reassure the child that everything will be okay, give them a quick hug and a kiss, and get out quickly. Hanging around and giving in to the pleas will only draw out the distress. If they see your uncertainty, it confirms their fear that something is wrong.
- Be there even when you can’t. Leave a sweet note in their lunchbox, or put up a picture of yourself in a cubby. These small touches can make your child feel much more relaxed.
- Celebrate victories! Let your little one know that you see their progress, and are proud of their bravery. Learning independence is no easy feat!
What is separation anxiety disorder?
While separation anxiety is normal and expected at a certain time in a child’s life, there is a difference between normal separation anxiety, and Separation Anxiety Disorder, or SAD. The symptoms of SAD are more intense, and may cause developmental problems in children.
Red flags for SAD may include a child:
- complaining of stomach pains or headaches
- feigning illness to avoid separation
- “shadowing” a parent from room to room
- refusing to sleep alone
- having withdrawals from friends and family
- experiencing an acute fear of leaving the house
SAD can be diagnosed by a specialist, and treatments include different types of therapies and medications.
Written by a staff writer at UHealth.