The first day of school is upon us, and many children are returning to school or starting their first day of kindergarten. This is a stressful time for children (and parents). Separation anxiety is common in school-age children. It is characterized by persistent or excessive worry about separating from a child’s primary caregiver. This translates into the dreaded emotional drop-off, a child who won’t get out of the car, they are pulled, tearful, into the school building only to scream as their parent walks away. We’ve seen it or we’ve been “that parent” only to return to our car and have our turn at crying. Not fun for anyone.
Even if your child isn’t excessively worried about going off to school, some of these techniques can ease the transition.
- Normalizing: Express to your child that he isn't the only one nervous about the first day. All of his classmates will be feeling some level of anxiety. Let your child know that his teacher is aware of this and will work to make sure everyone feels comfortable. Give examples of previous situations where your child has been nervous for something new but was able to manage these feelings successfully.
- Use a transitional object: Choose an object that your child can take to school. A locket with a parent's picture, a special stone to keep in a pocket and touch when feeling scared. A reassuring note from a parent that the child can read while at school. Choose this object together so that your child feels a sense of ownership. Ensure that it’s something that won’t be a distraction to other students.
- Validate: Let your child express fears about the first day, help him to articulate if there is something specific worrying him. Validate his fears rather than dismissing them.
- Plan ahead: If your child is especially fearful or has had difficulty with transitions in the past, meet with the teacher or school counselor before the first day of school. Together you can put together a plan for the drop off. This may include your child starting with the counselor, then transitioning into the classroom, or having the school counselor meet you at the curb to walk the child into school.
- Reassure: Convey optimism about what school will be like, new friends, new learning opportunities, recess!