It’s common for children to experience anxieties when heading back to school. Help them ease into the transition and jump back into school stress-free and with a smile.
The tears. The fear in their eyes. The tight grasp of their hand as you start to pull away. You’ve seen it before, and probably experience it yourself with a child of your own. Separation anxiety comes in many forms, but typically, the end result is the same. A feeling of guilt washes over you as you walk out of the preschool classroom and hear your child crying… calling your name… and begging you not to go.
The good news? You’re not alone. Most children experience the stress of separation anxiety within their first two years of going to school, with 4 percent developing a separation anxiety disorder. So while these anxieties are common, how do we know when they’re reaching beyond the scope of “normal”?
Preschool aged children experience separation anxiety due to feelings of abandonment or of being left behind. They depend on you for all of their needs, so when you leave, how do they know everything will be okay? They likely feel a sense of panic as you head towards to door, not knowing what is going to happen or when they will see you again. And if this is their first experience being left in the care of someone that is not a family member, this panic can escalate. School may appear like a bright and cheerful place, but with stress and irrational thoughts flowing through their minds, the unfamiliar surroundings are unbearable. Things are scary. Noises are loud. And the stuffed dinosaur in the corner of the room? It probably looks like a monster.
So how can you help your child - and yourself - at separation time? Try using these 8 strategies to make drop off a bit easier for the both of you:
Keep the goodbyes short and sweet. It’s easy to hang by the door and procrastinate the inevitable departure, but more times than not, you child will interpret this as fear. Maybe they should be scared if you feel compelled to stay to ensure their safety? Say goodbye, give them a tight squeeze, and let your child be comforted by their teacher.
Always leave with a smile telling them you will be back very soon. A simple task that can give your child the extra reassurance they need.
Bring a comfort item. Items from home help children feel safe. Blankets, stuffed animals, dolls, special toys, and family pictures are some of the best examples.
Create your own goodbye ritual - These fun goodbyes create a special moment between you and your child while giving them something to look forward to at departure time. It can be as simple as a hug or a high five, as long as you consistently maintain the ritual on a daily basis. A thumbs up, funny face, or special saying (see you later alligator.. in a while crocodile!) can also do the trick.
Avoiding sneaking away when your child isn’t looking. It’s easy to hang back until your child gets settled into the classroom, but sneaking away can actually cause a greater level of anxiety. When they realize you’ve left, the anxiety can flood back quicker than it left. Always say goodbye before leaving, even if it causes more tears or anxiety at the time.
Forget about others in the room. Focus only on your child when saying goodbye. Avoid comparing your child to others in the classroom to suggest that crying or having anxiety isn’t normal. Every child experiences anxiety in their own way; giving your child the proper attention without making comparisons will help them feel at ease.
Stay calm. It’s typical for children to mimic their parents, and this is true during drop off time as well. If they see you remain calm and happy, there’s a better chance they’ll feel the same way. And if you’re just faking that calm to help your child? It’s a good first step. But to calm your nerves as well, talk to you child’s teacher. Have a plan in place with the teacher so you know how he/she will comfort your child and help them through their anxiety.
It’s probably difficult for both of you, but just remember: separation anxiety is common. Your child may have a difficult time saying goodbye, but that certainly doesn’t mean he/she isn’t enjoying the school day once the anxiety has passed. Allowing them to work through their anxiety will help them learn to trust that everything will be okay without mom or dad at preschool with them. The routine of going to school together and making drop off time a positive experience will provide your child with a sense of trust and contentment. And before long, they’ll be eager to learn and begging you to go back to preschool.