Beginning a new school year is exciting for little ones. It can also be scary and unsettling. When initially separated from a parent or caregiver, it’s natural for young children to feel anxious. And, sometimes parents have a harder time being separated than the children themselves do.
Separation anxiety typically occurs in early childhood anywhere from the first birthday to four or five years of age. Although reactions vary from one child to the next, you can expect tantrums, loud wailing, and/or clinginess. Rather than wade through a sea of toddlers with a screaming child wrapped around your leg, here are some gentler ways to make goodbyes easier:
- Distraction: Quietly make your exit without a big fuss by creating some sort of a distraction for the child such as toys, a book or a friend.
- Interaction: On the other hand, your child may feel more comfortable in her new surroundings if you hang around for a few minutes to read a book or chat about the day’s activities. Then, put on your game face and head out. Don’t pull out the Kleenex until you are out of sight.
- Practice Saying Goodbye: Leave your child with a relative or babysitter for short periods of time to get them used to being temporarily separated. This also provides reassurance that you really will return as promised.
- Goodbye Ritual: Develop a special goodbye ritual that your child will find comforting such as a hug and a kiss, or a “secret” handshake. Read the book, “The Kissing Hand,” by Audrey Penn with your child that tells a story about a mother raccoon who placed a kiss in the palm of her child’s hand to “hold” onto while she was gone. This sweet story will make both of you feel better.
- Basic Needs: A child is more likely to suffer from separation anxiety if they are hungry, tired or not feeling well. Make sure your child gets a good night’s sleep and has a healthy breakfast. If they are not feeling well or running a temperature, keep them home for a day or two.
Just know that mild forms of anxiety are normal in the early years and every young child suffers from it to some degree. However, normal anxiety becomes a problem when a child’s level of distress impacts their quality of life due to excessive worrying. It also becomes a more serious problem when the anxiety continues into elementary school and beyond. When this happens, a child is often suffering from a separation anxiety disorder that requires professional intervention.
When to Seek Help:
When should a parent or caregiver consider seeking help? These are some of the red flags to look for regarding a separation anxiety disorder:
- Persistent stomach aches, headaches or other physical complaints
- Frequent nightmares or night terrors
- Difficulty going to sleep or trouble sleeping in a separate room
- Frequent crying or tantrums
- Refuses to go to school or has had a decline in school work
- Constant worries over family, friends, school, activities
- Excessive clinginess and fear of separation
- Unreasonable fears about being lost or kidnapped
How is Separation Anxiety Treated?
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the most effective form of treatment for children. This type of therapy helps children learn how to deal with being separated from their parents or caregivers without causing distress. Parents and caregivers are also taught coping skills and how to understand separation anxiety so they can learn how to support their child during their anxiety episodes. Occasionally, anti-depressants or other types of medication may also be needed to help the child deal with this disorder.
It’s always painful to see your child suffer from any type of worry or concern, but it can be even more so if you suspect that their anxiety is cause for a deeper concern. In addition to seeking a professional evaluation, parents can help their children by providing routines and strategies designed make their lives easier. You can find some helpful tips in the article, “Helping Your Child Cope With Anxiety.”