How to Help Your Child with Separation Anxiety and Back-to-School

Back to school is upon us, whether we like it or not. Around here, the trees haven't even begun to change, but the dining room table is cluttered with notebooks, pencils, erasers, tape, glue, rulers, poster board, construction paper, and so on. School shopping has already been completed, with new backpacks, clothes, tennis shoes, and jackets. Hair cuts have been squeezed in between eye appointments.

And then - my child is experiencing separation anxiety.

This can come at all ages. The funny thing is, when my daughter was in Pre-K, she marched down the hallway with enough confidence to make the staunchest of female warriors cringe in her wake. But her fifth-grade year was akin to sending her to boarding school overseas with no communication to home until she turned eighteen.

On the other hand, my son has made every school day a living tragedy. From the moment I left him in kindergarten to today—fifth grade—one would think we are parting for eternity. Maybe it's a thing with fifth grade? I don't know. All I know is, separation anxiety is a real thing.

For whatever reason, both my kids want to be around me. I guess I'll treasure that because it can't last forever, can it? They also handle that anxiety differently. Where my daughter gets moody and crabby, my son gets whiny and weepy. My daughter slouches her shoulders and heads off to war, accepting the inevitable battle with a weary expression. My son flops on the car's passenger side and tries to dodge the draft by hiding underneath the dashboard—as if I can't see him.

So if you're like me and have kids who suffer or have suffered from separation anxiety when it comes to school time, here are some tips that have helped bolster both their courage—and mine.

1. Validate Their Emotions

Sometimes, we want to peel them off our legs and tell them to "deal with it" or "suck it up; it's only for eight hours!" That's not going to help. I'll just say that right now. On the flip side, there's a fine line between validating their emotions and feeding into them.

Validating their emotions is recognizing them as real, expressing this recognition, and accepting that they are struggling. Feeding into their emotions is when we try to show empathy and create more of a monster by affirming how awful the separation will be. Comments like, "oh, I know, Mommy is going to miss you horribly too," or "I know it seems like a long time, but we'll make it." They sound like they intend to help and to comfort, but in reality, what is being heard is, "mommy will miss me horribly too, so I'm right to be anxious," or "It really is going to be awful if we're just going to make it instead of love it."

Instead, try validating their emotions with words that recognize their fears but also bring reality into the process. "I get that you're afraid and don't want to leave me. I love you too, and sometimes it's hard to be apart. However, think of all the amazing and cool things you wouldn't get to experience if you stayed with me. A cool teacher, great friends, fun projects, and neat things to learn!" Redirect their attention to the positives of their experiences while also establishing that you recognize and don't criticize them for having fears and anxieties.

2. Offer Tools to Bolster Their Courage

This is a fun way to be with them throughout the day, even when you're not. Don't discount the tools of encouragement like lunch box notes. Those are huge! That midday word from Mom goes a long way in getting them to 3:30 pm. You can also do things like tuck kisses in their backpack in case they need one. This works better for the littler kiddos. Those imaginary kisses that piled up in my son's backpack went a long way. When he missed me, he was able to go and retrieve one, and the teacher would find him pressing his hand to his cheek with my "kiss" to apply it.

Give the older kids something to look forward to when they get home. Offer them some goals to achieve at school that they can be excited to report back to you. Sneak one of their books from their backpack and hide a note for them to find inside during that period of their day.

Often, anxiety is caused because of the gap of silence. It makes the day manageable when we can break that silence with a form of connection during the day.

3. Be Firm, Not Bitter

There will come a time when you have to just walk away. I remember vividly walking down the hallway with my son crying heartbroken sobs from his classroom. I dared not go back, or his school career would have been over for good. I walked forward with my own tears on my face and felt like the worst mom in the world.

I'd just knelt by my child and told him, "you will stay at school, and you will have a good day. I will see you in a few hours. Now I'm going to go to work, and I will not come back if you cry."

I was firm. I laid down expectations and then had to carry them out. Later, he told me he didn't like that I'd left him there, but he was "okay with it." He'd accepted it. Another day not long after, a fellow student was experiencing much the same thing. Their parent bent and sternly stated, "you're being naughty. Now, if you don't stop crying and let me go, there will be penalties when you get home." I'm not saying there should never be consequences, but the bitterness in the parent's voice sent the child into deeper tears because now it became an issue of disapproval. There were consequences applied to their anxiety, and their anxiety now became a bad thing.

You can tell your child to stop it without layering it with the sound of bitter annoyance. There may very well come a time when you have to tell your child enough is enough. Just make sure it's surrounded by the knowledge of your love for them. All good discipline is coated in love.

School preparations are important. But are you helping prepare your child's heart for the coming year? Have you reaffirmed to them their value in your eyes? Have you let them know that this will be a year filled with good and bad experiences, but even if you're not beside them in person, you are there for them and will be there for them?

Know your child's emotional status before school starts. If they're chill with the whole thing, that's great! But if they are struggling with leaving you behind, be sensitive to that. Offer ways to process it, navigate it, and set boundaries.

Your child will make it. So will you.

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/fstop123

Jaime Jo Wright is an ECPA and Publisher’s Weekly bestselling author. Her novel “The House on Foster Hill” won the prestigious Christy Award and she continues to publish Gothic thrillers for the inspirational market. Jaime Jo resides in the woods of Wisconsin, lives in dreamland, exists in reality, and invites you to join her adventures at and at her podcast where she discusses the deeper issues of story and faith with fellow authors.



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