7 Strategies for Overcoming Separation Anxiety

It’s natural for parents to be concerned about their children starting school and the adjustment it entails, and it’s normal for children to experience separation anxiety at this time. Factors such as the child’s age will determine the level of separation anxiety the child experiences. Common symptoms include holding on parents at drop-off time, crying, screaming, or other unstable behavior. It’s important for school and parents to work together in overcoming separation anxiety so that the child can achieve successful matriculation at school and concentrate on learning.

Why does my child experience separation anxiety?

At it’s core, separation anxiety stems from the deep bond the child has with his or her parents. Until this point in the child’s life, parents are the primary caregiver the child has known, and the only party responsible for giving the child what he or she needs for comfort and safety. Thus, when entering a new environment full of unfamiliar faces, the child can easily lose those feeling of safety and comfort associated with parents and home.

The new environment at school poses several challenges to the child: the need to acclimate to the surroundings themselves, the new people in those environments, as well as the school day schedule and general rhythm of the school routine. All of these factors can culminate in varying degrees of the child feeling frightened, which often results in crying or screaming.

What are common symptoms of separation anxiety?

“Separation anxiety is a type of anxiety experienced often by young children when away from their parents.”

Through his study, John Bowlby identified 3 stages of separation anxiety as experience by children:

Resistance——crying, kicking and screaming;

Disappointment——intermittent crying, lessening of physical outbursts, lack of acknowledgement of others, lack of expressiveness;

Acceptance——the child starts to accept care from others and starts a normal routine eating and playing, but regression can occur when the child sees parents again.

How separation anxiety affects children?

Obviously, these symptoms can have a profound impact on the child’s school life and detract greatly from the child’s ability to engage in leaning activities. Longer lasting psychological results can include decreased intelligence, creativity and social skills, according to studies.

How long can separation anxiety last?

This depends largely on the preparation the child is given and how symptoms are dealt with if and when they arise. It’s crucial for parents to prep their child in advance of starting school. With the right preparation, the child will make the adjustment better and faster. Teachers must take great care to lead the child through the acclamation process at school, and thereby lesson the child’s fear of the new environment. Although each child is different, on average separation anxiety symptoms last between 1 week and 1 month after starting school.

Children express their separation anxiety in different ways. Parents and teachers must be vigilant in identifying the signs exhibited by the child in order to find the right solution.

        

1. Crying & Screaming 

Each morning at drop off time, Bin would refuse to go into the classroom. He cried, screamed, and held on to granny’s leg, “I don’t wanna go…”

This is the most common separation anxiety symptom exhibited by children at the beginning stages, and often the longest lasting as well – lasting up to 3 weeks into the start of school. The child is used to being the center of attention at home, but at school he or she is one of many children in the environment. Disappointment at this realization adds to the outbursts.

What Parents Can Do

●Adjust the home routine to include activities where the child understands he or she is a member of a larger society and cannot always be the center of attention.

●Monitor the child closely in tandem with your classroom teacher noting any changes in behavior. Where the child makes progress in adjusting to school life, offer praise for the accomplishment and encouragement it to continue. This is a type of praise your child will then associate with school, and in turn will help make school more attractive as a place where “you can receive praise for accomplishments.” 

●Don’t ask the child questions in the negative, such as “did you cry today?” or “did you manage to eat your lunch today?” These types of question only reinforce negative associations with school.

2. The Copycat Crier

Lele held onto granny each day when going to school. He did not cry when it was time for granny to depart, but did not seem overjoyed at the prospect of going to school either. Only when seeing other children cry would Lele start crying himself, and only after granny left would Lele cling to the teacher.

This type of child is likely to be well behaved at home, and although not thrilled about going to school, will follow parents’ instructions. Only at seeing other children cry will this child feel uneasy about being at school and start crying himself. For this type of child, as long as the other children are learning and playing happily, he is will as well. And in the case that other children exhibit crying or screaming, this child can often avoid the ‘copycat’ tendency by concentrating on a new toy or learning material.

What Parents Can Do

●In addition to the prep that takes place at home, before starting classes, make several trips to the school to get the know the environment. The environment itself is plays an important part in the overall process of school matriculation. Spend a good amount of time inside the classroom, and get to know the teachers.

●Allow your child to see how you positively engage others and make friends by introducing yourself. As with others things, your child will eagerly imitate you.

3. The Introvert

After starting school, Dongdong did not cry or scream, but did not actively play with classmates either. He often wondered why mom was not coming to pick him up. Upon seeing other children cry, Dongdong would comfort them saying their parents would be back soon.

This type of child is more introverted and does not openly display emotion. He is a good listener but likely not overly interested in school. During the school day, he mostly thinks about dismissal time and going home. With vigilant guidance from both teachers and parents, this type of child can make a successful transition to school life within a week, and soon after can begin to enjoy school activities and making friends.

What Parents Can Do

●Before and after starting classes, adjust the child’s work/rest schedule to help him or her master certain life skills such as going to the bathroom, dressing, and eating independently. Instilling self-confidence in the child will allow him or her feel they can overcome the challenges that go with starting school.

●At drop-off and pick-up times, you can lesson anxiety symptoms by staying a little while and playing rather that rushing in or out. But just stay long enough for your child to settle into some level of comfort. The trick is to not under or over do it. Let your child know they are cared for and safe while at school.

        

4.Delayed Anxiety

Shanshan started off happy everyday at school, but after a few days began feeling homesick and crying.

The new environment, and the new children to meet and play with at school intrigues this type of child for the first several days. But after the newness of everything wares off, the child is eager to return to the comfort of home, and is unwilling to go to school. Teachers can easily miss this type of anxiety since the child was doing so well at first, and parents are often too soon overjoyed at how well their child adjusted to school.

Even when a child adjusts well at first, it’s important to watch them closely for signs of delayed anxiety. During those first few days when they are doing so well, talk to them about their feelings towards going to school, and provide care and encouragement. When unchecked, the delayed anxiety sufferer will likely exhibit symptoms longer than those who experienced symptoms school first started.

What Parents Can Do

●Pay close attention staring from the child’s first day. Praise the child for adjusting so well and encourage continuation, while looking for sings of developing anxiety.

●Even when your child is happy and well adjusted there may be a latent anxiety. Watch closely for symptoms, as the sooner they are dealt with the better.

5.Physical Symptoms

At school each day the child complains of a stomachache. Parents are called and take the child home each time, and after returning home, the ill feeling subsides.

In these cases, the symptoms really come from the psychological level but manifest themselves physically. Thus, after being back in the familiar environs of home, the absence of the psychological symptoms naturally lead to a subsiding of the physical symptoms. This is another type of separation anxiety experienced by many children and one that can be overcome by giving children preparation for entering the new school environment.

What Parents Can Do

●Firstly, this type of situation requires careful analysis to determine if the symptoms are coming from a psychological or physiological source.

●Give the child an extra safe and comfortable environment at home, and discuss what they have found interesting at school. Invite classmates over for play dates as a way to help your child build social skills while gaining friends with whom your child will feel comfortable at school.

●At the same time, it’s important not to coddle your child too much, less they think they can avoid school by complaining of these symptoms.

6. Contradictory Anxiety

Jiji cries when coming to school and won’t let teachers get close, but at dismissal time she doesn’t want to leave.

Minnie displays polar behaviors at school and at home. She is happy to come to school, but after a while she goes to a corner to cry. She is quiet at school, but loud and boisterous at home.

These are examples of polar behaviors; often these types of children can make a complete behavioral switch from drop-off to pick-up time. These children are feeling unsure about things, even wondering if they are loved. Children in this category usually display symptoms for 3 weeks or longer.

What Parents Can Do

●With approval of the teacher, allow your child to bring a favorite toy from home. During the school day when your child feels anxious, having that ‘piece of home’ can bring a great deal of comfort.

●Talk with your child extensively about what they have done at school and their feelings about school. This helps lesson the ‘psychological distance’ between home and school.

●Lots of kisses & hugs; encouragement & praise.

7. The Fussy Eater

Xuanxuan is very introverted and often cries. She refuses to play and expresses her rebellion by refusing to eat.

This type of child often takes things to extremes. She will not rest until she accomplishes what she has set out to do. Parents must obey, then when the child get what she wants, she learns to use this technique as a type of weapon. This is also a kind of separation anxiety, and the kind that most irritates parents. It can take 1 month or more to overcome.

What Can Parents Do

●Don’t try to combat hard with hard, but rather take a systematic approach. Try bringing the child home for lunch on occasion as a way to help her get used to school.

●Speak with the teacher about having the child play with other outgoing and lively classmates. Use positive encouragement to turn the child’s forcefulness to a positive direction.

●Your child probably enjoys negotiation. You can use this to your advantage.

Separation anxiety when starting school presents a difficult, though temporary, problem for families. Parents and teachers must work together calmly and diligently in order for children to overcome their anxiety and benefit full from the school experience.