6 Ways to Help with Separation Anxiety at School

by Sharon Silver on September 13, 2012

A group of moms in the park were talking about how worried they were about their child’s separation anxiety. One mom said, Tammy has the worst case of separation anxiety I have ever seen. No matter where I leave her she screams, even at grandma’s.

Sound familiar? Whether your child is going to school for the first time or joining a new classroom this fall, you may encounter some intense emotions or resistance at drop-offs. But try as you might, separation anxiety is not something you can talk your child out of. The solution comes from time and through her own experience.

Think about it from your child’s perspective. You’ve always been her source of physical and emotional safety. When you separate from her, i.e. drop her off at school, her anxiety intensifies. She has no idea what anxiety feels like and that scares her! So she uses her unconscious (and age appropriate) way of expressing herself, crying, to let you know that she’s not sure what will happen if you’re not there to provide protection and security. Sure, you’ve told her a million times that she’s safe and you’ll be back, but your words don’t seem to comfort her. The only thing that really stops separation anxiety is her own repeated experience that she’s okay.

Still, there are ways you can help speed that process along. Here are six of them.

1. Create a routine.
Review the school routine as often as you can so she can rely on it. Be very observant while going over the routine. You don’t want to ignite another round of fear and pleading not to go to school, yet you don’t want to send the message that her fear gets to dictate what will happen either. Go over the routine before school and/or before dinner. This not only shows her that she’s going to school, it also shows her that her day will usually have the same beginning, middle and end to it, which comforts her.

2. Give Your child a battery-less watch.
Get a child’s watch and set it to reflect the time you’ll be picking him up. Take the battery out so it stays at that time. Ask the teacher to set a clock in the room for pick-up time. When your child misses you the teacher can get him to see if his watch matches the pick-up time clock.

3. Be on time for pick-ups.
Be on time for pick-up, no matter what. Doing this proves to your child that he can count on you. It also builds the same emotional safety away from home that he experiences at home.

4. Teach her to use "sad stickers."
Most parents try to redirect their child away from being sad and missing mom. The truth is your child needs to express her sadness so she learns how to deal with it. Buy her a journal and some sad stickers. Each time she feels sad during the day ask her teacher to let her put a sad sticker in her journal. This not only lets her express her sadness, it also allows you to see just how often she’s sad during the day. What you’re looking for is to see if her sadness is increasing or decreasing, not if it’s gone.

5. Give her a laminated "kiss."
Put red lipstick on, kiss a piece of paper, and then laminate the kiss. Put it in her cubby so she can go give mom a kiss any time she wants to. And because it’s laminated it can be wiped off!

6. Stay with her for a week, slowly transitioning out.
If the separation anxiety doesn't seem to be getting any easier and you're tempted to pull her out of school, consider first asking the school if you’re allowed to sit silently in the classroom for a week or so, to show your child that she is safe enough to enjoy school. Here's how this works:

Get a chair, sit in the corner and read a book — do not talk to your child. Just rub her back if she’s upset. Ask the teacher to come over to tell your child, “Mom isn’t leaving, she’ll be right here.”

When your child has come to trust that you’re there and it’s safe to play, move the chair a few feet toward the door, very slowly working toward the goal of reading outside the classroom and then being able to go home.

These tips will not instantly stop separation anxiety. What they will do is help your child relax so one day soon she’ll have had enough experiences to feel safe at school and know that mom always comes back for me!

Sharon Silver is the author of Stop Reacting and Start Responding and the Skills e-class. Go to proactiveparenting.net to download two free chapters from her book and learn about other Proactive Parenting programs. Find Sharon on Twitter and Facebook.

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