Now that school is back in session, many kids are experiencing some separation anxiety. It is perfectly normal and, much to the dismay of parents, incredibly common for children to display unusual behaviors at the start of school. Preschool and elementary school-aged children commonly cry, fake illness, have nightmares, throw temper tantrums, become clingy and have sleep problems. Some children adjust in a few weeks, and others may take a little longer.
While separation anxiety is common, and in the long term harmless, if persistent it can be serious. Leaving home and going into the world is a tough adjustment, but if your child refuses to go to school and gets you to acquiesce to his or her request to stay home, it becomes a problem. Your child’s education will suffer if he or she is allowed to accumulate excessive absences from school, and you are not addressing your child’s fear.
The best way to deal with this type of separation anxiety is to arm your child with coping techniques. Learning to handle stress and anxiety at a young age sets the stage for managing stress as an adult. Some basic strategies that young children can learn include closing their eyes and taking a deep breath three times. Tell your child to breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth with a hand on his or her belly to feel the air coming in and out. It is also good to teach positive self-talk, short phrases kids can repeat to themselves when feeling anxious, such as “I can do this” and “I am brave.”
The greatest resource against stress is a sense of competence and support. Therefore, it is essential to help your child find comfort in going to school. Showing your child that he or she is not alone throughout the back-to-school adjustment process pays dividends in the end. Once they develop this confidence, they are more likely to attend class without putting up a fight.
One tool parents and caregivers can use to help their children feel less lonely at school, which uses positive reinforcement to maintain appropriate behaviors, is “The School Fairy: The Tale of the Fairy Who Made School Unscary,”a children’s book about the Tooth Fairy’s youngest sibling. While first cheerless, she soon discovers her life’s purpose is to become the School Fairy, following children to school and reporting back to parents all of the wonderful things the children did that day. She helps children feel cared for and brings fun back into school. The book also features a parent guide that explains the science behind the nurturing support of the School Fairy, including behavior management strategies and tips for improving communication with children and teachers.
“The School Fairy” is a great resource, but it’s also important to stay in touch with your child’s teacher to monitor your son or daughter’s progress at school. If your child exhibits extreme anxiety, or if the anxiety persists for more than four weeks, you should consult your pediatrician.
Parents should be on the lookout for more significant problems beyond separation anxiety. There might be a greater problem if you child is:
▪ Withdrawn, showing little emotion.
▪ Suffering mood swings.
▪ Unable to comfort herself.
▪ Having difficulty falling asleep or waking up at night.
▪ Less able to tolerate frustration.
▪ Developing unusual fears outside of school.
▪ Showing aggressive behaviors.
▪ Having memory problems.
Until these issues resolve, continue to tell your child that you are available to listen. Use a calm tone of voice. Reassure your kids that they will be safe. Don’t minimize your child’s feelings with statements such as, “Stop being a baby; don’t cry.” Follow your child’s lead:
▪ If your child wants to talk, listen.
▪ If he or she is clingy, be patient.
▪ Allow your child to show his or her fears and give support.
▪ Help your child identify his or her feelings.
For more help with separation anxiety, contact the UHealth Mailman Center for Child Development-Behavioral Pediatric Clinic at 305-243-6857.
Ruby Natale, Ph.D., is author of “The School Fairy:The Tale of the Fairy Who Made School Unscary” and a pediatric psychologist at the Mailman Center for Child Development at UHealth – University of Miami Health System. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.