Separation anxiety: Little ways to ease school or nursery nerves
The back to school blues can be particularly intense after a break such as a holiday or even just a weekend.
Some children will happily skip off to school or nursery on the first day of term, eager to be reunited with friends and escape from mum and dad.
But for those who struggle with separation anxiety, it can be difficult to return to spending time apart after extended periods together as a family – be that over the holidays or even just after a fun-filled weekend.
Being faced with a child suffering from a bad case of the nerves can be very distressing as a parent. Especially when they turn to you with tears in their eyes and utter a heartfelt: “But I don’t want to miss you.”
Leaving your tearful child can feel cruel, but for children with separation anxiety the goodbye may actually be the hardest part and once you’ve gone, their day will begin to get better.
So take comfort in the words of psychologist Dr Amanda Gummer, who assures me: “it’s perfectly natural for your child to be a little anxious when away from you throughout childhood. It means they have a healthy attachment to you – they see you as a source of safety and comfort.”
If your child has a tendency to be clingy at the drop off, there are some little things you can do to help beat the back to school blues. According to other parents these are some strategies that can help:
Distract from the dread
Julie Thompson Dredge, founder of Frame PR, sought the help of a psychologist about her five-year-old daughter’s separation anxiety. She has found that distraction can help avoid feelings of dread growing as the return to the classroom looms.
“Listen to their favourite music in the car, or something similar like have their favourite breakfast and then be really strong,” she suggests. “I had a tendency to be all overly empathetic: ‘I know, baby…it’s so tough...’ etc. but that can be confusing to a little kid. You just need to keep saying school / nursery is amazing and you have so many friends / things to play with.”
No long goodbyes
“Leave really, really quickly,” says Julie. “The best thing is if a teacher can be in the know and grab them as early as possible. So maybe text / call ahead and let the teacher know.”
Amanda adds that you should “avoid trying to sneak away in the hope your child won’t notice - they will! Instead, say a cheery goodbye but keep it short and sweet”.
“Be consistent,” continues the founder of Dr Gummer’s Good Play Guide. “It can be hard to say goodbye to a bawling child, especially when your own bottom lip is wobbling. But children respond well to boundaries and repetition, so they will learn quicker if you are strict with this.
“Say goodbye, then leave – avoid promising that you’ll be back soon, or the temptation to just check in again after half an hour, as this can start the whole painful process again.”
But do drag out the happy reunion
“When you pick them up be really excited about how great their day was and they’ll soon see it as a happy place,” says Julie.
Be aware that your child doesn’t know what you know
Make sure you “let your child know that you will be back and when – such as after lunch or nap time,” advises Amanda. “Talk about what they have to look forward to, such as playing with Nan or seeing a friend at school, and what you’ll do afterwards when you pick them up. Some children may find routine picture cards useful.”
“When you are together, help your child develop their confidence and independence,” advises Amanda. “This is helpful not just for dealing with separation anxiety, but for life in general.
“Give your child opportunities to do things that scare them – such as challenging themselves to go a little higher on the playground climbing frame, drawing or making something they don’t think they’re good enough to do, and so on. Giving your child lots of praise every time they try can give them that strength to keep trying.”
Part of separation anxiety comes from your child not knowing how to cope with stress if you’re not around, so it can help to teach them calming techniques they can use to regain a sense of control when dealing with tough emotions by themselves.
“Teach your child simple breathing techniques to manage their anxiety when alone,” says Amanda. “For example, square breathing – breathing through the nose into the stomach (not the chest). Breathe in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, breathe out for four seconds, and hold for four seconds. They can do this for as long as needed.”
Can You Help With A Little Thing?
An upcoming issue of The Little Things will focus on preparing your child for the arrival of a new sibling. What did you find helped get your child ready for this major life adjustment? Were there any good books you read, or do you have tips on how to handle tricky conversations that you’d like to pass on? Please do let me know by replying to this email. Your advice could help make life easier for other mums and dads.
Looking for new board games to keep the family entertained on cold afternoons? I spoke to ten experts, including board game designers and reviewers, who recommended the best games for multigenerational groups for The Strategist UK.
Brace yourself before clicking on this one. In this intensely beautiful but agonisingly emotional read for The Lancet, Tamarin Norwood writes about her son’s death at just 72 hours old and gives thanks to the “many, many people”, from midwives to advocates, who ensured the memories of her son’s birth and death were “lovingly carved”.
I’m Ellen Wallwork, a sleep-deprived mum-of-one, incessant worrier and freelance journalist. I’ve been writing about parenting for more years than I care to remember and previously launched the Parents section on HuffPost UK. Follow me on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, (but be warned, I’m not a prolific poster).
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