4 Tips for Coping with Back to School Separation Anxiety

Child Timid Getting on BusA new school year is quickly approaching and for many children that means picking out a new backpack and gathering school supplies. Unfortunately for some children, going back to school can also mean feelings of anxiety because they will be separating from a parent or another primary caregiver.

“Children with separation anxiety worry a lot about their caregivers and may be concerned about something bad happening to them,” said Dr. Anna Hickey, a licensed clinical psychologist with the Children’s MOSAIC Project and The Children’s Center. “They also worry about the possibility of something happening that might cause them to be separated from the caregiver.”

When a child has separation anxiety, they show signs of distress such as having a tantrum, crying when they are separated, or thinking they may have to be separated from their primary caregiver. Separation anxiety is most common in children, usually under the age of 12, but it is also seen in adolescents and adults.

Children with separation anxiety may be very hesitant about going or even refuse to go places, such as school, daycare or spending the night at a friend’s house. It is not unusual for children with separation anxiety to try to remain close to their caregiver when they are at home.

“They may have trouble at bedtime and insist that someone stay with them until they fall asleep, or they may have nightmares related to being separated from caregivers,” Hickey said. “They may also complain about physical problems such as stomachaches or headaches when separation occurs or is expected.

Hickey shares these tips with parents who have a child with separation anxiety:

Establish a structured routine. Consider posting a schedule to help everybody stay on track.

Try not to prolong farewells. When it comes time to leave for school, whether it’s getting on the bus or getting out of the car at school, provide some quick comfort and reassurance such as saying “I love you,” or “Have a good day. See you this afternoon,” and then be on your way.

Avoid looking back or going back to give lots of hugs and pats on the back.

Set up a reward. Recognize your child for going to school and staying there all day by having a treat ready or spend some one-on-one time together when they get home.

As difficult as it may be to see a child upset about having to separate from a caregiver, letting the child stay home might actually make the anxiety worse. Parents who keep the child with them are rewarding the worries and complaining. This can make it more likely that the child will continue to be anxious about leaving the house or caregiver in the future.

If you absolutely cannot get the child to go to school, make sure that the day is not full of fun or lots of attention from the caregiver.