Back to School: Managing Separation Anxiety

Once again it is that time of year when school car parks are full and children bearing oversized backpacks fill the pavements. The new school year brings with it a range of emotions for both the child and parent including nerves, excitement, anticipation and curiosity. For some this experience is a wonderful opportunity to flex their independence and embrace new experiences. For others however, new unfamiliar experiences can feel overwhelming and distressing.  

At different stages of development it is normal to experience anxiety around separation and will be experienced more or less intensely for each child. Typically, separation anxiety develops around 7-9 months of age and can continue to around 2.5 years of age. Separation anxiety can however also present at other ages and stages of childhood. It is quite common for children to experience separation anxiety when experiencing times of change, stress, and when children have to adapt to new periods of separation from their caregiver. Usually this is a temporary adjustment characterised by tearfulness, fear and distress, clingy behaviours and resistance.  This anxiety serves to keep the child close to the caregiver, who is their source of love and provides a sense of safety.  

Whilst you may find your child's behaviour difficult and even exasperating try to remember that your child’s fear of being separated from you is very real for them. At the heart of this anxiety, your child believes that if something were to happen to you, they may not survive in the world. They also often underestimate their ability to cope in a situation without your presence. Or perhaps they lack some important skills to be able to do so. Although it may be difficult to hear your child cry, remember that there is a silver lining, as this behaviour indicates a healthy attachment between yourself and your child.  

There are also a number of things that you can do as a parent to ease and manage any anxiety your child may be experiencing in relation to beginning at school or nursery this year. Firstly, acknowledge the transition for you both, name and discuss the variety of feelings that you are both experiencing. Help your child to recognise what they are feeling and validate this emotional response, letting them know that this it is okay and normal to feel this way. Help them to tolerate their feelings until they ease and eventually pass.  In the run up to school try to use any available opportunities to practice healthy separation. This may begin with brief periods of separation, building up to longer periods of time as your child’s confidence in managing separation grows. Furthermore, try to establish a simple, predictable and short drop-off routine with your child. Parents can find it difficult to separate from their child at school when they are crying or visibly distressed. But this may inadvertently reinforce your child's anxiety and subsequent behaviour.  When children, especially young children, are first adjusting to new environments, they may wish to take an object of comfort, such as a favorite toy or blanket, to assist them in coping with this change. Once your child is feeling more settled and comfortable in their new surroundings you will be able to phase this out if you so wish. Reading stories about beginning school or nursery can also help to assist your child in normalising and calming their fears about being separated from you. A few particularly helpful ones include The Invisible String by Patrice Karst or The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn.

Whilst some anxiety is normal in the initial phases of separation and is to be expected when your child is learning to spend time away from you, for some children the anxiety persists over a long period of time and does not ease. If you are concerned about your child’s level of separation anxiety, speaking with a psychologist experienced in assessing and treating separation anxiety disorder can help you to determine whether your child is experiencing a separation anxiety problem, and if so, can help build important tools to guide you and your child through their anxiety.