The start of any new school year can cause anxiety for children unsure of what to expect in their new classroom environment, but this fall, after 18 months of pandemic-related upheaval of routines for adults and children alike, even the most confident kids might experience separation anxiety as they enter school classrooms for the first time (or the first time in a long time).
“Separation anxiety occurs as a result of life stresses and transitions that one has to adapt to but are perceived as scary for a variety of reasons,” says Emily Pyles, LPCC-S, a licensed professional clinical counselor with Kettering Health. “Most often it is triggered by changes in environment, schedule or routine, or health. Think about how all of these were affected during the past year and a half, and it makes sense why so many children are struggling with higher levels of anxiety.”
Signs of separation anxiety vary by age and can include:
In young children
– Tummy Aches
– Anger Outbursts or tantrums
– Asking specific questions about how long their caregiver will be gone
– Resistance to returning to school
– Headaches or stomachaches (which can occur even hours to days before the separation
– Irritability, mood swings
– Nightmares or fears about a caregiver’s death
– Losing interest
– Regression to younger behaviors, such as wanting to sleep with caregiver/parent or
– Cardiovascular symptoms (e.g., palpitations, dizziness)
Emily says separation anxiety commonly occurs at the start of school because in addition to the change in routine and various unknowns that come with a new experience, children are also trying to navigate their emotions through these changes.
“As adults we struggle enough to figure out what we are feeling and what we can do about it,” Emily says. “Imagine a child who doesn’t understand what is going on inside of them (emotionally) and doesn’t know what’s happening around them, all while their security (the caregiver) is gone or leaving. How could there not be anxiety surrounding this?”
Fortunately, for most children, adolescents, and even adults, fears and anxieties will improve and often go away after they have gotten used to this new routine and expectations.
How to ease the transition
Emily says helping your child feel safe and in control of as much as possible is key. Preparing in the days and weeks leading up to the start of school can help both you and your child.
– Encourage your child to ask questions—even if you might not know the answers. This allows for validation of their questions as well as taking away some unknowns.
– Be consistent and follow through on what you tell your child you will do. If you leave the room and say you will check on them in 10 minutes, be sure to be back in 10 minutes. Consistency creates trust and safety.
– Practice separation. Depending on your child’s age, try leaving for short periods of time to help your child slowly build up tolerance and confidence. For example, go for a short walk around the block.
– Create routines and rituals. Come up with a goodbye ritual together (like a special hug), draw a picture together that they can take with them to school, write them a note they can look forward to in their lunchbox, etc.
– Encourage your older children to talk through what they think it will be like or what they are concerned about, and normalize it. Share any feelings of uneasiness you may be having as well, and how you are dealing with that.
For older students, Emily also suggests a strategy called “coping ahead,” which allows them to practice visualizing what they are anxious about and talking through how they might cope with it well.
“Work together to problem-solve how they could handle that,” she says. “If your student knows how they can be prepared, there is a level of safety and comfort.”
When to seek help
In most cases, separation anxiety is temporary. If it intensifies, starts impacting performance (change in attendance or grades), or daily functioning (withdrawing from social experiences, increase in mood swings, not eating, etc.), speak with your child’s doctor or school counselor.
As a parent, if your anxiety is increasing and impacting your daily life, reach out to your doctor or call (937) 534-4600 to schedule an appointment with a Kettering Health licensed counselor.