EASING SEPARATION ANXIETYFor young children and their families, going to kindergarten is a happy and exciting time. However, for a few, as the first day of school approaches, excitement can quickly turn into apprehension. They begin to worry about leaving home, the bus ride, the new teacher, the classroom, friends, and the list goes on. For most these worries will be short lived and they will make a successful transition to school. For a small number of children, the worries will manifest into separation anxiety, making the transition difficult.Please let me know if your child is experiencing a difficult time coming to kindergarten.I will offer you both as much support as possible.
WAYS TO HELP WITH SEPARATION ANXIETY BEFORE
THE FIRST DAY OF KINDERGARTEN
- Make kindergarten something to really look forward to. Prepare for the big day a few weeks ahead of time. Post a calendar, and mark off the days as if you are excited about an upcoming holiday or birthday. Pick out a new lunch or backpack together and save it for the big day. Plan a special, celebratory breakfast for the first morning.
- Find out who will be in your child’s class, and arrange to play with some of the children a few times before school starts. After school begins, plan get togethers with children from the class after school and on the weekends.
- We are all much less likely to be anxious if we know what to expect. Take your child to visit the school a few times before the first day. Arrange to meet the teacher. Look around the classroom and the school so that your child knows where the bathroom is, where their belongings will go, what the playground looks like, etc. Spend some time together playing on the playground and walking around the school. Keep telling your child how exciting and wonderful this experience will be.
- Ask your child if she has any questions about school. Answer them honestly, and if you don’t know, find out the answer. If your child is worried about making friends or talking to the teacher, practice some easy phrases, such as, “Can I play with you?” and “Can I go to the bathroom?”
- Give your child many chances to talk about how he is feeling about going to school. Do not assume he is scared, or plant the idea in his head by asking, “Are you worried about going to school?” However, if you are sensing that he is apprehensive, but can’t communicate that feeling, say, “Are you a little unsure about what kindergarten is going to be like?” Try to figure out specifically what the concern is. Let him know that whatever he is feeling is okay and normal. Share a time when you went into a new situation, how you felt at the beginning, and how it ended up okay in the end.
- If your child says that he doesn’t want to go because he will miss you, respond by saying, “I will miss you, too, but I’m really excited about everything you will get to do in school. I can’t wait to hear all about it when you come home.”
- Make up a special goodbye routine with your child: a special handshake or phrase that only you and your child share when it is time to say, “goodbye.”
- If you are dropping your child off at school, keep it short, and stay calm. Hug your child, and say, “I love you. I know you’ll have a great day. I’ll pick you up at 3:00. Good-bye.” Smile and walk away. It is helpful to tell your child ahead of time what you will do and say that morning, so she is prepared.
- Do not hesitate when you leave. Be prepared for the fact that your child might cry and be upset, but have confidence that the teachers know how to handle the situation. The more you drag out the good-bye, the more painful it will be, and the longer it will take your child to get adjusted to leaving you. If you run back the minute your child starts to cry, you are teaching him that crying will prevent you from leaving, and he will do it every morning.
- Children will pick up on your slightest bit of anxiety and will wonder why you are concerned. It is incredibly important to prepare yourself, in addition to preparing your child. Practice what you will say to your child and how you will stay calm. If you feel like you are going to cry, do your best to hold it together until you are out of your child’s sight.
- Make it your absolute first priority to be home or to pick up your child at exactly the time that you said that you would. It will be easier to get her to school the next day if she trusts that you will be there on time at the end of the day. Ask her questions about her day, focusing on the positive. Tell her how proud you are of her and how she must be excited to go back tomorrow.
- Prepare yourself for a few days, or even weeks, of difficult mornings and separations. Remind yourself to be consistent, be calm, and be optimistic. If you can solider through a few rough days, your child will get used to the routine and future separations will be much easier.
How Can I Stop My Kindergartner From Cryingat Drop-Off?
BOOKS YOU CAN READ WITH YOUR CHILDTO EASE SEPARATION ANXIETY
The Kissing Hand, by Audrey Penn (Tanglewood Press, 2006, ages 4-8) Not only is this an endearing tale for children and adults alike (just try reading it without getting a lump in your own throat!), it helps establish a routine that can get an anxious child through the day with a minimum of worry. In the book Mrs. Raccoon’s kiss stays in Chester’s hand all day long and reminds him of how much he is loved; in an especially poignant moment, he returns the gesture before his first day of school and gives his mother a Kissing Hand of her own. Touching without being saccharine, and charmingly illustrated, it is deservedly beloved.
Llama Llama Misses Mama, by Anna Dewdney (Viking Juvenile, 2009, ages 4-8) It’s hard to go wrong with a riot of color and rhymes that beg to be chanted aloud, but this book does a great job of illustrating both in words and in pictures the varying moods of a child leaving the nest for the first time—fear, isolation, confusion—while simultaneously validating and easing them. This is the most recent of Dewdney’s bestselling “Llama Llama” series.
Mommy, Don’t Go, by Elizabeth Crary and Marina Megale (Parenting Press, Inc., 1996, ages 4-8) This book directly addresses children’s mixed feelings about being left with a caregiver, and its “choose your own adventure”-style layout allows them to make choices for the protagonist and see the outcomes for each. Consider it a trial run for real-life separation—when children choose to have main character Matthew cling to his mother in an attempt to keep her at home, they turn a page and see that he’s still feeling sad and frustrated by this choice. The problem-solving format empowers kids to make their own decisions and compare the benefits and consequences of each beforehand in a non-threatening way.
I Love You All Day Long, by Francesca Rusackas and Priscilla Burris (Harper-Collins, 2004, ages baby-preschool) Affectionately illustrated, the porcine characters in this book guide children through their first days at school. Instead of focusing on the separation itself, the book cleverly refocuses on the ups and downs of different scenarios that children may encounter while in school: “I’ll love you when you make a new friend – or when you make a mistake.” I Love You All Day Long balances its gentle humor with encouragement.
First Day Jitters, by Julie Danneburg and Judith Dufour Love (Charlesbridge Publishing, 2000, ages 4-8) She hates school, no one will like her, and it’s just too hard—children will empathize with Sarah Jane Hartwell as she hides under the covers in the hopes of evading another school year. What they won’t see coming is the end of the book: Sarah Jane Hartwell is the teacher! A great reminder to children that adults can also get those first day jitters, this book is affirming, funny and a delightful revelation for kids.
I Don’t Want to Go to School: Helping Children Cope with Separation Anxiety, by Nancy Pando and Kathy Voerg (New Horizon Press, 2005, ages 4-8) Aside from having an adorable and engaging main character in Honey Maloo, a winsome bee who tries every trick in the book to keep off the school bus, this book is a winner because of how it enables kids to focus on their strengths to get them through what might otherwise be a challenging situation. It offers good aid for parents trying to make parting a little easier on their children—and on themselves.
Will I Have a Friend?, by Miriam Cohen and Ronald Himler (Star Bright Books, 2009, ages 4-8) Finally, a book about separation/back-to-school anxiety that involves a father! While the story itself is essentially enduring (Jim shares his fears about not having a friend on the first day of school with his father), recently updated illustrations make it contemporary and easy for children to relate to.ARTICLES YOU CAN READWITH TIPS ABOUT SEPARATION ANXIETY
By Dr. Stacie Bunning, clinical psychologist
My 5-year-old cries every day when we drop her off at kindergarten. I have talked to her teacher and she tells me, "Rest assured, once you leave she stops crying." But it has been two weeks since school started and it's the same thing every day. Do you have any ideas or suggestions?
This is an extremely common problem and one that is easily remedied with the passage of time. Going to school for the first time can be overwhelming for little ones, especially if they are used to being away from home. It can also be overwhelming for parents, who feel anxious about being separated from their children for such long periods. Here are a few things you can do to make the process easier for her (and yourself!). First, ensure that your little girl is getting adequate sleep each night. Poor sleep can lead to mood swings, behavior problems and even learning difficulties. According to the National Sleep Foundation, school-aged children require 10-11 hours of sleep each night,so keep a consistent bedtime routine for your child. In the morning, wake her early enough so that she can get ready for school in a relaxed fashion and enjoy a healthy breakfast. Play a favorite CD in the car on the way to school; allowing your child to choose a few songs may give her a feeling of control. Second, monitor your own reactions to your child's distress. Children are amazingly perceptive when it comes to their parents' emotions, and your daughter is likely sensing your feelings of concern. This may fuel her anxiety and her desire to stay close to you. Lingering at drop-off time, while understandable, is likely to backfire. It is likely that by delaying your own departure you are reinforcing her tearful behavior. Your best bet is to give her a quick hug and tell her you'll see her at pick-up time. Then, be on your way. Have a plan to assuage your own nerves, such as calling a trusted friend as you leave school or stopping for a coffee. Finally, find ways to help your daughter feel more connected to her school. Sign her up for an after-school activity such as Scouts or soccer, and take her to school-sponsored events where she will see her classmates, such as fall and winter festivals. Plan weekend play dates for her with peers from her classroom so that she develops friendships and looks forward to seeing the other children at school. If your daughter continues to show distress at drop-off after you have tried some new techniques, consider having someone else drive her for a while, just to change the pattern that has been established. You might also talk to your pediatrician about a referral to a qualified mental health practitioner for some supportive therapy sessions.
Dr. Stacie Bunning is a licensed clinical psychologist in the St. Louis area. She has worked with children, adolescents, and their families in a variety of clinical settings for 20 years. Bunning also teaches courses in child psychology, adolescent psychology, and human development at Maryville University in St. Louis.Separation Anxiety:
15 Ways to Ease Your Child's Fears
by Cathryn Tobin, MD, author of The Parent's Problem Solver
It took months before I was able to leave five-year-old Madison, my fourth child, at school without having to peel her fingers off of me one-by-one and endure her tears and tantrums. The curious thing was that she'd gone to nursery school the previous year without making a fuss. Although Madison's teachers reassured me that she settled down and seemed worry-free within minutes after I left, I didn't know how heart-broken I would feel leaving her in such a state.
Separation anxiety is a little one's way of saying how much they really don't want to say good-bye. Most preschoolers and grade-schoolers experience it at some point in their early lives. Sometimes it occurs out of the blue after a change in the environment. Other times separation anxiety occurs because children are worried about life at home -- perhaps because parents are fighting or someone is sick -- and they feel a sense of uncertainty about leaving home. Most often, however, separation anxiety is purely a "missing mom" issue. Madison fussed for months on end until I had my eldest daughter drop her off. Almost immediately, the tears and tantrums disappeared. Follow these 15 strategies and you may be able to minimize the problem too.
What to do:
DO:Involve the teacher. You need someone on the other end who will greet your child and ease the transition.
DO:Send clear messages. Your child needs to know that you expect him to go to school no matter how much he fusses, cries or stamps his feet.
DO:Believe in your child's ability to make positive changes.
DO: Keep your good-byes short and sweet. In doing so, you convey the message that you have confidence in your child's ability to cope.
DO:Develop loving good-bye routines. Madison and I invented a kiss-hug-nose-rub routine that we both enjoy.
DO: Invite children from the class over, so your child can forge friendships that will make the transition easier.
DO: Ask your spouse or another family member to take a turn dropping your child off, or pick up one of your child's classmates on the way to school, and your problems may disappear with lightning speed.
DO: Tuck a family picture or a loving reminder away in your child's backpack for her to look at later in the day.
What NOT to do…
DON'T: Take your child home (or allow him/her to stay at home). If you do, you send the message that if your child cries enough he/she won't have to stay.
DON'T: Hover around. Your child will sense your anxiety, and this will make it more difficult for him/her to calm down.
DON'T: Get upset. By keeping an upbeat and positive attitude about your child's school, teacher and friends, you'll help your child feel safe and enjoy his time at school.
DON'T: Bargain or bribe your child to behave. Your little one should be allowed his/her feelings.
DON'T: Sneak out. You want your child to know unequivocally that he/she can trust you.
DON'T: Discuss problems with the teacher in the morning. Save conversations and questions for the end of the day.
DON'T: Be surprised if you solve the problem and it reoccurs after holidays and sick days.
Remember: Separation anxiety means that a strong and loving bond exists between you and your child.
[Cathryn Tobin, M.D., is a pediatrician, midwife and a member of the Canadian Pediatric Society and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons. Her new book The Parent's Problem Solver: Smart Solutions for Everyday Discipline and Behavior Problems was published by Random House. Dr. Tobin has been speaking on parenting issues for more than 20 years. She lives with her husband and four children in Ontario.]