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How to Handle Separation Anxiety at School

As a mom who has three kids, we have dealt with our fair share of separation anxiety. In most cases, separation anxiety is a developmentally appropriate milestone that most kids experience. A child can develop it as early as 4-5 months old, once they have developed object permanence. Object permanence is the idea that when something is out of sight, it still exists even though they can’t see it. As a baby, they express this new knowledge by crying, as that is really the sole form of communication they have. When they become a toddler their tantrums due to separation anxiety get louder and bigger, because they have learned to use their voice and gained more words.

I remember the first time we experienced separation anxiety with my firstborn. Being a new child therapist, I wanted to make sure that I was doing it “right”. For me that meant making sure my child’s emotional needs were being met at drop off. Being an inexperienced mom, I did it all wrong! I would walk to the door, cling to him a little tighter, try to give him a big hug and kiss, tell him I love him, and I would see him at the end of the day. What made it worse was as the teacher was reaching for him, I wasn’t quite ready to let him go so I would cling even tighter and twist my body away from her so she couldn’t get him. Well, that didn’t exactly send the message of safety or a love for school. I was unknowingly sending the opposite message to him! I meant well. I didn’t know I was sending signals of discomfort to my kiddo. But I was.

Now at this point, I feel I need to put a disclaimer in here, because it is not always the parents fault for creating separation anxiety. There are several other factors that could be going on. For example, maybe this is the first time you are ever dropping your child off at daycare. Your child is almost undoubtedly going to experience some separation anxiety in this case. You might also have a child that, genetically, is just a homebody or presents with a little more anxiety than others. That’s okay too. We parent the child we are given, and we don’t have much control over what we get. In other cases, maybe there was a traumatic event, leading the child to experience anxiety whenever they are away from their primary caregiver. Whatever the case may be, the only control we do have as parents is how we set the emotional tone. Kids are extremely right-brained meaning they are incredibly in touch with their emotions and other people's emotions. This is one of the reasons parenting coaches, myself included, stress parental emotional regulation. Staying emotionally regulated is also a key factor during school drop offs, as well.

My goal is for you to learn from my mistakes, and hopefully make it a little easier on you and your child. In the rest of the article I have compiled a list of tips and tricks to help drop off go a little smoother for you!

Stay calm, momma (or dad)

I will say it over and over and over again: Our kids learn best through modeling. If you are modeling anxiety and nervousness, they are going to pick that up and follow suit. Your kids are constantly looking to you for indications on how to react. Just like when your 18-month-old fell and scraped their knee, they would look at you to see how you reacted. If you looked worried and ran over and asked, “Are you okay!” they started crying. If you stayed calm and smiled and said, “You’re tough! You got it!” they usually would carry on. Drop off is the same. So set the emotional tone! You and your kiddo can handle this!

Have a calm morning routine

Think about how you start your day. I bet, if your alarm clock doesn’t go off and you wake up late you feel frazzled for at least half the day (if not the whole day) and maybe even grumpy. Kids are the same way. If they feel rushed, or are yelled at, or the morning time is chaotic, it sets them up for failure. So have a good, solid, and calm morning routine. Make sure they get up in enough time so they aren’t rushing. If your kid is anything like my oldest, I start wake-up 30 minutes before he needs to get out of bed, because he is not a morning person! That way by the time he does actually get out of bed, he still has time to get dressed and eat without feeling rushed.

Talk about anything else on the way to school

This is a distraction technique. While you are in the car, try playing a game like I-spy or 21 questions. This helps keep your kid’s mind off the anticipation of going to school, lessening the build-up.

Have an “I love you” ritual

There’s an actual book called I love you rituals by Becky Bailey. These little rituals you do together boost your relationship, unconditional love, and encourage cooperation. They are also really great ways to build expectation around something a little scary, like drop off. This is similar to when the teacher has a handshake for each kiddo at the beginning of the day. Building expectation around the unknown helps calm the brain down. Maybe you have a parent-and-child-only special good-bye, a secret handshake, or a phrase you can say to each other.

Have the other parent do drop off for a while

Sometimes kiddos just need a reset. If they don’t seem to have massive meltdowns with the other parent (and for some reason only reserve them for you), try having the other parent take your kiddo to school. After a few weeks, your kiddo might have the routine down, and it won’t be that big of a deal if you start taking him again. Before you do, have a conversation the night before about how you are going to take them to school and you expect them to be able to walk in nicely without any problems.

Use connection stones

Sometimes having something special they can hold in their pocket is helpful. The two of you can spend some time decorating a small rock with rock paints for both of you to carry around with you. Tell your kiddo to give it a rub if they miss you. Just make sure to also talk about how the stone must stay in their pocket and can’t cause problems.

Read The Invisible String

I love this book by Patrice Karst. It’s a really sweet story about two siblings who get scared during a thunderstorm, and their mom explains how the “invisible string” connects them at all times. This story brought a lot of peace to my son as he was experiencing separation anxiety during pre-k.

Have a lovie (if permitted)

If it's allowed, let your kiddo take a comfort item with them. It will provide some familiarity throughout the day, which offers some comfort and can take the edge off.

Have a primary point of contact at school

Pick someone at school that your kiddo is comfortable with, and have them be the person your child meets in the morning at drop off or goes to in the middle of the day if they are feeling sad. Make sure this person knows they are involved in the plan, and that the school can accommodate this strategy.

Give the kiddo a job to do immediately at school

For many kids, once they are in the door they are usually fine. It's just getting them in the door that can be a struggle. So have them do an immediate job. I used to write the teacher a note that I needed my son to deliver at the start of the day. Sometimes, giving your child a task helps them to think about something else and gets them in the door.

Separation anxiety can be so tricky, and each child is different. It might take you a few tries to figure out the thing that brings comfort. One of the things we figured out for my son was that he loved to listen to rock-and-roll in the morning with dad on the way to school. For whatever reason, it set him up for a good day at school most of the time. So trial and error is okay. Be patient, set the emotional tone, and keep at it! If you feel like your situation is more than typical separation anxiety, please feel free to reach out to us and talk to one of our therapists!

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