Separation anxiety is a real condition for many children and their parents on the first day of school, says Samuel T. Gladding, professor of counseling at Wake Forest University and author of the book “Family Therapy.”
Not being well-prepared for the separation makes anxiety worse, Gladding says. He offers parents tips for how to avoid emotional scenes with children clinging tearfully to them when it is time to say goodbye.
Role play with your child on leaving and returning before the big day arrives.
Long before school starts, encourage more social kids to include your child in their play and provide reinforcement for getting involved in activities.
Use pretend exercises. For example, the parent can get the child to act like a super hero, such as Superman or Wonder Woman. Then the parent can ask: “How would Superman act when going to school? Show me.”
At the school’s open house, introduce your child to teachers and other children in the class to help him feel more secure in the new environment. The unknown usually generates fear.
If parents are the ones feeling anxious, avoid communicating distress to the child. Parents can use the pretend technique, too.
As a parent, model appropriate first-day behavior. Then, get your child to imitate your behavior so that he or she gets comfortable acting in a positive way.
To conquer separation anxiety, parents may require help from a school counselor or other mental health professional, Gladding says. If a child refuses to go to school, has trouble sleeping/has recurring nightmares, or complains of frequent stomachaches, these symptoms may indicate a more persistent problem. For extreme cases, anti-anxiety medications from a physician could be needed.
Separation anxiety is not a problem reserved for kindergartners. Older children, including teens headed off to college, can also experience separation anxiety, Gladding says. For them, the symptoms could include persistent homesickness, an inability to concentrate, or a reluctance to get involved in school activities. “Parents can encourage these older adolescents, letting them know how they as parents overcame their homesickness or inability to concentrate and letting them know they have faith in the first year student’s ability to do well in his or her new environment,” Gladding says. ”Parents can also work with student life personnel, such as resident assistants, to help their college student find enjoyable activities such as outdoor clubs or singing groups.”