separation

Separation Anxiety Tips (from CDS with notes for other schools)

Family happy mother send children kid son boy kindergarten to school

Separation anxiety is fairly common in the toddler and preschool years. It is most likely to happen in response to the start of a new school year as it is a change in caregivers, setting, peer activity and schedule all at once.

Goodbye rituals can be helpful. When my girls were little we had two high-fives and a hug as our goodbye. A ritual lets the child relax until that happens and then clearly signals the separation. Keep the actual goodbye short and sweet. The guideline is – Don’t say it until you mean it, then say it, mean it and go.

Goodbyes are important and moving through them helps to build a sense of trust in the system. This also means to avoid being the parent who sneaks out. If you wait until your child is busy and then sneak out without the goodbye, they are more likely to cling longer the next time.

It is most helpful to keep an upbeat attitude and expression through the separation. Your words, tone and look should all reassure your child that school is a great and fun place and you are entirely confident leaving them here.

It can be helpful to send your child with a small, soft toy or other object from home (not their most loved/bedtime lovey please). Teachers may let them have this as they need for the first few weeks. Gradually, they may encourage the child to have the toy stay in the bag, and eventually to stay in the car or at home.

At Country Day School, we strongly encourage all families to drop-off and pick-up in our carpool system. This can help ease separation anxiety by keeping goodbyes short and by having the child arrive to the same activity each day. At CDS this activity is gathering on the porch. Arriving to the same activity each day helps because the child knows what to expect as they get out of the car. If you are at a school that drop-off happens at the classroom, the hope is they are doing about the same things in the same ways each day during the drop-off window. To have this added benefit, children also have to arrive on time.

If your child is experiencing separation anxiety, it can be helpful to be one of the last to arrive and one of the first to pick up. Let’s say your drop-off is 8:30 – 8:40am and your pick-up is 11:30 – 11:40am, it’s helpful to drop-off closer to 8:40am and pick-up closer to 11:30am. At drop-off and pick-up, this means less time sitting and waiting on the porch. Also at pick-up, it can be upsetting to wait longer and watch other children go home first. If you are at a school that drop-off happens in the classroom, teachers may encourage you to be one of the first to arrive so your child is coming in to a quieter classroom and the teacher may be more available to help with the transition. Either way, good to ask and follow the teachers suggestions about times.

At home, it can be helpful to look at class pictures online and talk about their teachers, friends, classrooms and activities. It may also be helpful to have playdates with classmates often. The more they feel connected to others in the class, the less separation is an issue. It may be helpful to drive by the school, wave and talk about how fun school is or, if allowed, play on their playground on your days off.

Many schools are happy to briefly email or call to let you know how things are going. If a child is experiencing separation anxiety, they can also let you know what improvements they see over the first few weeks of school.

It may be helpful to read upbeat books about separation and starting school including:

Separation Anxiety
• The Kissing Hand by Penn
• When I Miss You by Spelman and Parkinson
• Llama, Llama Misses Mama by Dewdney
• Will You Come Back for Me? By Tompert
• Owl Babies by Waddell
• The Invisible String by Karst
• I Love You All Day Long by Rusackas
• Oh My Baby, Little One by Appelt

Starting School
• DWs Guide to Preschool by Brown
• The Brand New Kid by Couric
• Wemberly Worried by Henkes
• Timothy Goes to School by Wells
• Do I Have to Go to School? A First Look at Starting School by Thomas and Harker
• What to Expect at Preschool by Murkoff
• Maisy Goes to Preschool by Cousins
• Going to School by Civardi
• Preschool Day, Hooray! By Strauss

What to Do When Your Child Says “I Don’t Wanna Go to School”

Parent Taking Child To Pre School

At some point, most children go through a phase of not wanting to go to school. For others, that push can ebb and flo for years. My younger daughter, Claire, has always had a difficult time going back after the Winter Break. There were tears in January throughout elementary school.

Smooth, calm morning – I understand their not wanting to go to school upset alone can be enough to knockout off the feeling of a smooth, calm morning. They may lose it, but you need to stay calm. Be the rock. If you need ideas to meet this goal, you might read Screamfree Parenting by Runkel or Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids by Markham.

Matter of fact empathy – When your child is upset, it is best to start there. Matter of fact empathy mean acknowledge the emotion, then continue with the routine. On a difficult morning this might be, “I know you are upset, you don’t want to go,” as you help put on their shoes, and, “I hear you want to stay home. I like staying home with you too,” as you walk them in. You are recognizing emotions and moving forward. Avoid starting with denial or reasoning. Denial would be “You like school. This shouldn’t be so hard.” Reasoning is “All of your friends are there, you’ll have fun at school.” Denial and reasoning are fuel for the argument.

Focus on the routine – It may be helpful to refocus on the routine. Talk to your child about the time available, steps that need to be done and the order. It may be helpful to make a chart together to keep track of the morning. Within each step, it’s often good to offer choices or challenges. When it’s time to get dressed, they might get dressed on the bed or the floor. A challenge might be racing you to get dressed. Here’s a blog post focused on improving your morning routine. If it is truly difficult to get through the morning, you might also start 15 minutes earlier to give everyone a chance to relax.

Note any patterns – By day two, the second year of Claire’s January blues, I was ready. Maybe it’s worse in September in your house. Maybe Mondays each week are hardest. Most things are easier when you see them coming. Knowing the pattern can help you plan.

Speak with their teacher – Whenever there’s a school related difficulty, it’s good to check in with the teacher. The teacher may be able to point to something specific happening at school, or may let you know everything seems fine once child is there. Either way, it’s helpful information. You might also ask the teacher for help. This might include setting up a specific way for your child to start school each day. Coming into a known situation (everyday the first thing will be this) may be easier than not knowing day-to-day. This might be giving your child a morning buddy; a friend to be together with for first transition activities and classwork.

Speak with your child – Occasionally and out of the moment, ask them what’s going on in the mornings before school. Ask what they are thinking about. Ask if there’s anything they are happy about, worried about, excited about or scared about at school. One question here and there, in a relaxed tone, at a calm time may be helpful.

Organize one-on-one playdates with a variety of kids from the class – Playdates give kids a chance to get to know their classmates. The more positive social connections they have with classmates; the more they might want to go to school.

Carpool – So this might be more time consumming than the initial push to avoid school, but your child may be more willing to go if they arrive with a friend. If your child is a bus rider this may mean having a bus stop buddy or asking the bus driver to help with seating friends together.

Alternate who manages the morning or drop off – It may be easier for a child to move through the morning with or separate from one parent than another, or from a sitter or grandparent versus a parent (if that’s available, even short term).

Things to bring – Not everyday, but occasionally, it may be helpful to have something for your child to take to or deliver to school. This might be something small to show his teachers or friends, a note he wrote or drew to someone, a snack to share with the class or a thing you need delivered to the office or guidance counselor.

Open talk time – As children move into late elementary school, keeping communication open is so important. Open talk time is an easy way to work towards that goal. This allows time for the child to vent and be heard, and for you both to work through things in a calm exchange.

Address any known causes – If there are academic concerns, revisit your homework plans, find new ways to practice the needed skills or hire a tutor. If it’s a social concern, meet with the guidance counselor, coach your child on ways to manage or follow up with the teacher. On either front, continue to monitor and follow up with interventions as needed. Do what’s needed to support your child in the area of concern.

Read related storybooks – For younger children, these books could be I Love You All Day Long, Llama Llama Misses Mama, The Kissing Hand or DW’s Guide to Preschool. For older children, Sophie’s Squash Go to School, The Brand New Kid or Sometimes I Worry Too Much but Now I Know How to Stop.

Read related parenting books – If it becomes a longer term or bigger issue, helpful parenting books include Helping Your Child Overcome Separation Anxiety, or School Refusal by Eisen and Engler or When Children Refuse School by Kearney and Albano.

There are also therapists who work with children around anxiety issues and school refusal.

 

Starting at a New School this Fall?

Back to school

Whether your child is starting at a new preschool or elementary school, the first day can be daunting. There are several things you can do over the summer months to help prepare for the first day.

  • Visit the school’s website – Explore the website with your child. Point out pictures of happy children and read about fun yearly activities. Look for pictures of your child’s teacher or classroom.
  • Play on the school’s playground – If it’s available, playing on the school’s playground can build happy memories during the summer that might carry over to the fall.
  • Plan playdates with future classmates – If you have a class list, start contacting families over the summer to play or meet at the pool. If there’s no class list, you might ask neighborhood families if they have or know other children starting at the school. It can be so helpful to see a familiar face on the first day.
  • Attend all back-to-school nights and visit-the-classroom opportunities – This is partly to support your child’s gradual entrance to the new school, and partly to be sure you are an informed parent. Often teachers review school policies and give important information at these events. The more you know about the school the better.
  • Review the drop-off and pick up policies and have a plan for separation as needed – Share the plan for drop-off and pick-up with your child. As best you can, be sure they know where to go and what to do. If your child tends to have separation anxiety, it’s good to know the school’s policy for this as well. Here is a link to a blog post about separation: https://parentingbydrrene.com/2012/07/23/tips-for-separation-at-the-start-of-the-school-year/. Here is a link to a 20 minute podcast (#341) I gave on managing separation anxiety: http://www.parentsperspective.org/index.php?s=separation.
  • Re-establish bedtime and mealtime routines – If you’ve lost a sense of routine, it’s good to rebuild this at least several days before school starts. If children are allowed to stay up late and sleep in the day before school, getting up and getting ready on time can be that much harder. If your kids are grazers over the summer months, it can be helpful to get back to regular meal and snack times as well.
  • Remind them of other positive transitions they’ve made or you’ve made – Remind them how much fun they had when they started at a new camp last summer or when they joined a new soccer team. Tell upbeat stories about when you started school.
  • Read upbeat children’s storybooks about the start of school –   Upbeat books include DW’s Guide to Preschool by Brown, What to Expect at Preschool by Murkoff,  If You Take a Mouse to School by Numeroff, Kindergarten, Here I Come by Steinberg and Welcome to Kindergarten by Rockwell.

Tips for Separation at the Start of the School Year

It is normal for young children to experience some level of separation anxiety at the start of a new school year. It often represents a change in caregiver, schedule, setting and classmates. As a parent, it makes sense to prepare yourself for some upset, and be pleasantly surprised if it is an easy transition.

  • Take Advantage of Previews – If your school offers a summertime classroom visit or an opportunity to meet their teacher, attend. Attend the back to school night with your child if that’s available. Play on their playground, and make playdates with their classmates as soon as you can. Any preview experience can be helpful.
  • Don’t Sneak Out, Say Goodbye –  As hard as it can be, sneaking out builds mistrust in the system. Children are more likely to cling harder the next day.
  • Goodbye Rituals Can Be Helpful – Children may be comforted by a sense of routine. In our house, this meant I would give two high-fives and a hug before I left them anywhere. This helped them to relax in new situations because they knew I wouldn’t leave unexpectedly.
  • Avoid Pushing Them Out – It can be helpful to give them time to hang back, to observe a bit before they dive into a new setting. In these moments, often the more you push them out, the more they resist. Avoid saying, “you should play legos,” while directing them there. It’s better to hang out with them and comment on the fun, or go with them to see the legos together.
  • Wait Until You Mean It, Then Say It and Go – Avoid saying goodbye several times only to stay longer. This builds more tension in the system as the children try new ways to keep you there, and they learn you don’t really mean it when you say it.
  • Ask for Regular Feedback from Teachers – The teachers want a smooth transition for your child as much as you do. It helps everyone to stay in regular communication. It is fine to ask them to call you at a given time, or ask them to track how it is going over the first few weeks.

Push Back to Dad Traveling for Work

Dear Dr. Rene,

My husband was recently on a two month work trip (which will be a frequent occurance). My almost three-year-old son is a fairly emotional child and has always been very attached to me, although we had made significant progress in the past with him being okay with Daddy doing bedtime and being alone with Dad. While my husband was gone, my son hardly talked about him and didn’t exhibit many signs of missing him, though I brought him up often so that he knew his daddy was thinking about him. We were able to Skype occasionally, and he was always excited to see him on the computer. The first day or two of him being home were fine.

It has been five days with daddy home and our house has turned into mayhem. My son will not be in a room by himself with his father, he won’t let his daddy help him do anything, he says “I don’t like Daddy,” he hits him if he tries to carry him, and so on. We have tried to be understanding of it to an extent, he gets physically upset and “scared” – but I don’t want to reinforce his fears. Its gotten to a point that we feel it may be partially a control issue for my son – and we don’t want him to feel like he can manipulate a situation by throwing a fit to get what he wants. We are at a loss for how to handle this. We expect it to take time, but aren’t sure of the appropriate approach. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

Sincerely,

Sarah, mother of two

Dear Sarah,

I am going to answer this in two parts. The first is how to best manage the push back that is happening now. The second is how to better prepare and move through the next separation.

In the moment, when he refuses to be in a room alone with daddy and bucks at being carried, the idea is for dad to go heavy on the empathy, validate his feelings, but then move forward with the activity. If his push to make daddy leave the room or put him down works, it reinforces his effort. This would be saying something like, “I know you are frustrated! You really want to be with mommy,” or, “wow! You are mad. You want me to put you down,” for at least several sentences. Then move forward with, “but for now it’s daddy,” or, “I am sorry, but I need to carry you right now.” All of this should be done in a calm way. The idea is to understand the upset, it is what it is. Then dad moves forward with what is reasonable, being alone in a room together or being carried as needed. Dad should avoid matching anger or giving in to the demands.

I also completely agree, while there is empathy there should also be limits when the behaviors are unacceptable. There is discipline when he hits and appropriate response (ignore during and neutral after or some consistent plan) when he tantrums. Yes, he is upset and this is well within normal limits for behavior for his age, but the consistent discipline response is needed to reign in the behaviors in the long run.

Around all the travel, I would try to find a little time each week that the two of them can spend time just being together. This could be a board game in the playroom, a trip to the playground or an ice cream run. Not to leave you and baby out, but it’s a time for them to hopefully connect individually over something fun.

Before the next trip, make the child a family photo album (Sassy makes a 6 picture one) including at least a few pictures of him and dad. Be sure there are family photos framed in his room and talk about dad often during the separations. During the next trip, plan to have them Skype as many days as possible.  It may also be helpful for dad to send postcards or other small things in the mail every few days and pictures online.

Sincerely,

Dr. Rene

Traveling Away from Children

Dear Dr. Rene,

I am traveling alone at the early part of December and again in January. The first trip is to visit my sister who is ill and following treatment. The second trip is work related. I will be gone a week for each trip and have only been away from the girls once before. They are now three-and-a-half and almost five years old. The first trip out of town for work was two years ago, and it was difficult all around. How and when should I tell my girls?  Should I tell them together? How much do I tell them? What are things I could do to make this time go faster or easier for them? I too am having a hard time getting ready and making these trips. I am feeling anxious and overwhelmed at the separation and find it a difficult task. Then, I think about all the other moms of the world who travel regularly and wonder in amazement, how do they do that? Any insight and suggestions would be appreciated!

Sincerely,

Cristina, mother of two

Dear Cristina,

I know this can be difficult. The idea is to prepare them without overpreparing them. It is plenty to tell them just a few days before. Have a simple few sentences ready about where and why you are going, when you are leaving, how long you’ll be gone and most importantly who will be taking care of them. Be ready for the upsets and questions. If they are upset, give lots of empathy and talk them through. Answer all of their questions honest but small. Try to shift the follow-up conversation a bit to where they will be and who will be caring for them during the time. If there is anything fun planned for them during the time, highlight that as well. I tend to tell my children things together as they help each other. If your’s are particularly dramatic or tend to work each other up, it is fine to speak with each separately.

You might help them by teaching them to use a simple calendar to count down the days you will be gone. You can practice this next week with the Thanksgiving holiday. If you are all traveling or having houseguests for a few days or even just all home from work for a few days, draw a square for each day. Draw a picture in each square to represent something from the day and have them cross off each day when they go to sleep at night. For example, Grandma is visiting Wednesday through Saturday. The calendar would be four squares with a picture of grandma arriving in the first square, turkey in the second, a museum trip in the third and grandma leaving in the last. Each night during the visit, have them cross off a square. Make one of these for each of your trips.

You might also make them each a small photo album with a few pictures of you with each of them and a few of them with other relatives. It is a nice thing for children to have pictures readily available when a parent is away. You might also introduce the family to email and Skype. It would likely help if you can send notes or pictures each day and spend a bit of time on the phone or skyping with them while you are gone. If you were going to be gone longer than a week, you might also send postcards or small gifts in the mail. A little more effort, you could record them a few of their favorite or even some new books on tape.

As much as you feel overwhelmed and anxious, try to put on your brave and confident face when you are talking with them about this. If they are upset themselves and see your tears and lip quivering, it may add to the sense of panic. In general, I am all about sharing emotions openly with children, and I think you can let them know you are sad, but you want to be sure you are able to send comforting messages and the sense that this is a solid plan rather than adding your own sense of doubt.

In genreal it is good for children to have normalcy during times of change, so it’s good to keep them on a relatively similar schedule as to when you are home. Plan for them to attend school regularly. That said, around their normal activity, I would try to build in one special thing for them to do late in the week. Maybe their caregiver could take them to a movie or out for a dessert on Friday. You might also encourage the caregiver to help the girls plan a welcome home for you such as a special dinner or outing. This gives them things to look forward to and distracts them a bit.

I hope this helps.

Sincerely,  Dr. Rene

Approaches to Separation Anxiety

Whenever I have new children who have separation concerns in my programs, I give the parents two choices about how to move forward. While this is all flexible, I have found that some variation of the two plans seems to work well for all.

Option 1 – The Parent Goes – Following this plan the parent comes into the room with the child at drop-off. The parents stays for a short but consistent length of time, maybe three minutes. At that time, the parent says a short, sweet “good-bye” and leaves. The a teacher may help the child away from the parent or hold the often crying child while the parent leaves. Often this is followed by the teacher carrying the child, trying to comfort or distract the child or helping them transition to play. The teachers mark the amount of time it takes the child to settle and anything that was helpful in the process. This repeats each day with the hope of the child transitioning to play sooner.

  • Make good-bye rituals – In our house, this was two high-fives and a hug. My children new they could relax, that I wouldn’t leave until this happened.
  • Say it when you mean it and go – Parents who stretch out the process either before by saying good-bye early or after by staying once the good-bye is said, tend to be adding anxiety to the system.
  • Okay to ask for feedback – It can be helpful to ask the teacher to track the progress over days or to call you 15 or 30 minutes into the day to let you know how it is going.

Option 2 – The Parent Stays – Following this plan the parent comes into the room and participates with the child on the first day. The second day and forward, the parent comes into the room stays with the child briefly then sits in a chair to the side of the room when it would otherwise be time to leave. The parent does not participate to the point that we encourage parents to bring a good book or work to do, so they are disengaged from the classroom activity. The teachers and play invite the child to join.  Gradually, as the parent is being very boring, the child joins the play. Once the parent and teacher feel ready, the parent plans a trip away from the classroom. The first trip maybe a five minute break to the office. When the parent returns, they do not gush or comfort, they greet then sit in their chair to read. Trips are gradually longer and the child learns to be in the classroom without the parent.

  • Avoid smiles and eye contact – If the parent is gazing and smiling at their child in play, it invites the child back to reconnect with the parent rather than continue to play.
  • Avoid pushing child out – The more the parent pushes the child to join the play the more they likely hold on. Let the teacher, children and the play pull the child out.

I have a two hour Parent Workshop on Separation Anxiety on Tuesday, August 2 from 7:00-9:00 p.m. For more information and to register, please visit: http://www.eventbrite.com/org/283710166?s=1328924.

Here are a few other places to learn about Separation Anxiety –

A 30 minute interview on Separation Anxiety with Parent’s Perspective: http://www.parentsperspective.org/index.php?s=separation

A good publication by Zero to Three: https://secure2.convio.net/zttcfn/site/Ecommerce/1950749906?store_id=1121

A good publication by NAEYC: http://www.naeyc.org/store/node/190

An online article by HelpGuide:
http://www.helpguide.org/mental/separation_anxiety_causes_prevention_treatment.htm

A good book Helping Your Child Overcome Separation Anxiety or School Refusal: A Step by Step Guide for Parents by Eisen & Engler

Separation Issues Question

Parent Question: I have two-and-a-half year old twins who are experiencing separation issues. One has separation anxiety from me during the day, and the other one at night (meaning he wants me to hold, rock, or sleep with him all night long). It started a few weeks ago and each subsequent night has gotten worse. My other twin has had separation issues since he was a baby, but now he is able to sleep alone and stays asleep. I would love to start to leave them at the gym day care for about an hour while I work out, but it has not been going well. I have tried multiple times, but the child with daytime separation gets very upset, crys, shakes, and gets physical with the childcare provider. I tried a bigger gym with more activity in the child care room. Do you have any tips to help them? They are scheduled to attend preschool next fall, but until then they are at home with me.

Answer: The unfortunate thing with anxiety issues is that the children need to have experience working through it and being fine on the other side of it for the anxiety to lessen. The more you stay with them through the night or pull them from childcare, the more they feel that its a scary thing and that they do need you there. I am not saying bail on them and let them be miserable, but I am saying don’t give up on the idea and learn to help them through it. If you do have a sitter or relative that they stay with well, give them more regular experience there. There is a free 20 minutes on seperation at http://www.parentsperspective.org/, search for ‘Hackney.’ There is my full hour on http://www.askdrrene.com/. There is also a good brochure called Separation by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
For sleep, there are check-in methods (Mindell) and gradual move-out methods (Brazelton) that may be helpful here. Both are sending the message, bed is where they belong, and it is a good, safe place to be. The books are Sleeping Through the Night by Mindell or Sleep the Brazelton way.
Sincerely, Dr. Rene

Extended Stay with Grandparents

Dear Dr. Rene,
My five and six year old children are going to be staying with their grandparents for two months while we move our household and set up our new house in Germany. How do we keep this separation a positive experience and let them know they haven’t been abadoned?
Sincerely, Sybil
Mother of Two

Dear Sybil,
There are many answers here. First, be ready for them to have some separation issues or related upsets throughout the time. Two months is a stretch, and, at this little age, the response is unpredictable. Talk to the grandparents in advance about ways they might help and how to manage.

Anytime there is upset, start with giving empathy. Accept and validate their emotion. Label and talk about why they are feeling that way. Help them to understand and express their feelings. Teach them ways to calm and cope.

During the separation, find ways to connect. Plan to Skype regularly, send a daily postcard, email pictures of the move and call daily. Even if these things are a bit difficult, it is likely good to be in touch.

Have the grandparents keep as regular a schedule as they can. Keep mealtime and bedtime routines intact and sleep on schedule. If the children went to preschool or babysitters, have them go as possible.

Make a fun schedule for the four of them. Encourage the grandparents to take the children to museums, movies or the library for storytimes. Be helpful by researching this for them in advance.
Sincerely,
Dr. Rene
www.parentingplaygroups.com

Preschool and Separation

Dear Dr. Rene,
My daughter will be four in September and has never participated in any program away from me. She is very resistant to the idea, but will be starting preschool in the fall. Is it okay for preschool to be her first experience away from me, or should I force the issue this summer?
Sincerely,
Karen, Mother of One

Dear Karen,
I think it would be good to have at least a few experiences over the summer. You might sign up for a few single drop-off classes and or short camp session. You might also just schedule babysitters more often and practice that way.

That said, it is also fine for preschool to be her first experience with separation. Experienced preschool teachers have dealt with initial transitions and separation anxiety. Most expect this to some degree every September. To be fair to all involved though, you might contact the teacher prior to school and let her know you expect some difficulty. It would be good to have an understanding of the school’s drop-off procedures and guidelines for managing separation issues.

It may also be helpful (if allowed) to play on the school’s playground over the summer. Take advantage of any preview experiences such as a home or classroom visit. Ask for a class list so you can start playdates over the summer months, this way you ensure a few familiar faces on the first day. Take pictures of the other children and teacher as soon as you can and give these to your child to help them make connections.
Sincerely,
Dr. Rene
www.parentingplaygroups.com

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