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.

 

Resources for Children’s Anxiety, Worry and Perfectionism

Child psychologist with a little girl

Children’s storybooks

  • Sometimes I Worry too Much but Now I Know How to Stop by Huebner
  • David and the Worry Beast: Helping Kids Cope with Anxiety by Guanci
  • Nobody’s Perfect: A Story for Children about Perfectionism by Burns
  • Wilma Jean the Worry Machine by Cook
  • Slip, Slide Skate by Herman (perfectionism)
  • The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes by Pett
  • Is a Worry Worrying You by Wolff
  • A Boy and a Bear: A Children’s Relaxation Book by Lite
  • DW’s Guide to Preschool by Brown (separation)
  • The Kissing Hand by Penn (separation)
  • Oh My Baby, Little One by Appelt (separation)

Children’s workbooks

  • When My Worries Get Too Big: A Relaxation Book by Buron
  • What to Do When Your Worry Too Much by Huebner
  • What to Do When Good Enough Isn’t Good Enough by Greenspon
  • What to Do When Your Brain Gets Stuck by Huebner
  • What to Do When You are Scared and Worried by Crist
  • The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook by Shapiro

Parenting books

  • Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking by Chansky
  • Freeing Your Child from Anxiety by Chansky
  • Helping Your Anxious Child: A Step by Step Guide by Rapee, Wignall, Spence, Cobham
  • The Optomistic Child by Seligman
  • Freeing Our Families from Perfectionism by Greenspon
  • Letting Go of Perfect by Wilson
  • Building Resilience in Children and Teens by Ginsburg
  • The No Cry Separation Anxiety Solution by Pantley

Join me for a workshop on Separation Anxiety, Worries, Fears and Perfectionism, July 23rd, 7:00-9:00pm in Reston, VA.  For more information and to register, please visit http://www.eventbrite.com/o/parenting-by-dr-rene-parenting-playgroups-283710166?s=1328924.

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.

>starting school

>Dear Dr. Hackney,

I need your help!!! My six year old daughter Amy is having some anxiety related to starting school soon. She has been having difficulty going to bed at night; this seems to be the only time it manifests itself. As soon as I move to leave the room, she starts fidgeting and says she needs to go to the bathroom. When we return to her room, she says she has to go again. Last night, we stopped the whole process and talked to her about what will happen the first day of school and also explained we are meeting her teacher next week. Is it too much to expect to have her get on the bus the first day? I worry that if she doesn’t do it the first day I’m setting her up to depend on me everyday. She has a very good friend who will be riding the bus with her, but I’m not sure that will be enough to motivate her. We are thinking we may look into therapy to help her deal with anxieties.

Thanks, Samantha
Mother of two, ages 3 and 6 years

Dear Samantha,

I am sorry to hear this has been hard already. My older daughter had very similar nights (and mornings) when she was a bit younger. I’m going to write about the global things first, then more practical.

Between now and the time school starts, think lots of downtime and empathy. Downtime is unscheduled, low key playtime. It is fine to have friends over and to go out, but I wouldn’t run everyone ragged in the last few days. When children are tired, their worries seem overwhelming. Downtime also lends itself to more open conversation. I would talk about school with her when she brings it up or when she seems particularly anxious – just like you did the other night – stopping everything and talking about her first day.

The empathy component is to remember that her worries are hers and they are real, and the reasoning, reassuring and logic do little to actually help. Empathy (labeling emotions, talking her through and suggesting ways to cope) allows her to own those feeling and validate them so you and she are on the same page. Empathy helps children to calm because they feel understood. So, first approach with empathy before the fix.

Prepare her as best you can, which you are already doing. Talk her through the daily schedule, and answer questions whenever needed. You might go play on the school playground or have playdates with other kids going to the same school. When you meet the teacher, you might ask if you can take a picture of her and the teacher together, and then get it printed that day, so she can have it to hold onto until school starts. You might also use the picture to make a craft project – a poster for her room or a card to give the teacher on the first day, etc. or do both with copies.

Before you meet the teacher next week, you might sit with Amy to find out if she has anything she wants the teacher to know or wants you to ask the teacher. If it were me, I’d tell her tomorrow to think about those things and then talk about it over the few days before meeting the teacher. This gives Amy a sense of control of the meeting. She has her questions answered.

Talk to her about the bus idea and how fun you remember the bus to be and games/songs you remember while riding with your friends. If another good friend rides the bus with her, maybe you all could meet 10 minutes before and board together. Maybe you could assure her that you will step on to be sure she sits with someone she knows. It is best if she can face it and get on the bus the first day but don’t be defeated if not. It may be that she takes and few days to feel confident about school and then can better face the bus. If the bus doesn’t happen the first day, I would plan a goal date that it will, such as the second day or Monday of the second week. Something realistic so it doesn’t turn into a year. Getting on with a friend might be the thing – especially if you make a date out of it.

Remember too that your attitude goes a long way, and she is reading you more than you know. If you are apprehensive and worried, the morning won’t go well; she gets that, at least to some extent. So, put on your brave face and smile through her upset. You want to send the message that the bus and school are safe and fun places, it is where she should be, and that you have no doubt she will enjoy herself and want to ride the bus everyday. If you can start to anticipate that it will all go WELL, it will go all the better.

You might check out Helping Your Anxious Child: A Step by Step Guide for Parents by Wignall, Spence, Cobham and Rapee.

Sincerely,
Rene Hackney, PhD.
Parenting Playgroups, Inc.

%d bloggers like this: