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5 tips for handling separation anxiety in school-aged children

Melissa Roja Lawlor
June 28, 2018

"Mommy, don't go!!!!" The tears, the clinging to our legs, the pleading we all know how separation anxiety works. It gives us anxiety just thinking about it.


We spoke with developmental psychologist and author of the blog Child Myths, Dr. Jean Mercer, to find out the best ways to cope with the anxiety that may accompany a transition from summer to child care or preschool, and she gave us some great tips on how to deal with separation anxiety and transitions in our own families:

Tips for dealing with separation anxiety

1. Make a gradual transition

In a situation that requires any kind of adjustment, it's best to let the kids experience it in smaller doses. "See if you can schedule a gradual entry into child care or preschool," Mercer says. "If it's child care, you might be able to come for two hours and leave together at first, then over time, decrease the amount of time you're there." Letting your child experience the transition a little bit at a time can help her cope with the idea of separating from you.

2. Don't sneak out!

Many parents think that if they can leave while the child isn't looking, the child might not experience separation anxiety. "When you sneak out, then the child gets the impression that they'd better keep an eye on you the whole time," Mercer says. Be clear about your goodbye and exit. Otherwise your child may be worried that you're going to disappear without warning.

3. Create a farewell ritual

Having a farewell routine can be key; maybe it's as simple as a hug and kiss, maybe it's a squeeze of the hand. "If the child knows and understands that this is how you say goodbye and that you'll be back, they'll be less likely to panic than if you slip out the door and suddenly they can't find you," Mercer points out.

4. Minimize stress before school starts

As much as we all love vacations, try to plan them so that they're not ending right as a new school year begins. "Coming back from vacations is a stressful time," Mercer notes. "Plan ahead as much as you can to minimize stress and create a calming environment as the first day of school approaches."

5. Watch yourself and your emotional cues

"Children can sense when you're anxious or concerned about something; it's called social referencing," Mercer says, referring to the process by which infants and toddlers, around the age of 4-5 months, pick up emotional and facial cues from their parents. So if you're worried about something, though you may not verbalize it, your child may pick up on that vibe and become anxious herself. So as anxious or sad as you feel, put on a smile and keep going!

For more tips on taming troubling transitions with your children, read the full Care.com interview with Dr. Mercer below.

Q: Is there a certain developmental age when separation anxiety often occurs in children?

A: Separation anxiety used to be called 8-months-anxiety because that's the point at which a switch is flipped in the child, and they begin to have certain attitudes toward familiar and unfamiliar people. For a lot of babies, when they're 4-5 months old, they're very social. They will socialize with everyone, whether they know them or not. But often around 7 months, the baby may really check someone out, especially if they're unfamiliar to them. This is a very normal pattern of human development; it's just the point at which they really begin to see there is a difference between familiar people and unfamiliar people.

Q: What strategies could you give a parent whose child is not adjusting well to the transition of school?

A: You can schedule a gradual entry into the childcare setting. See if you can schedule two hours at a time, where you're there with your child, and you leave together, so that the child has some time to experience the new situation with the support of that familiar person.

One thing that is absolutely essential: don't sneak out! When you sneak out, then the child gets the impression that they'd better keep an eye on you the whole time! Whereas, if they know what's happening, if you have your farewell ritual and tell them you're going to be back and seem fairly relaxed about it, that is a much better strategy. The passage from mom to caregiver needs to be marked by a clear farewell where you leave, and the child can see what's happening and is comfortable, and not worried that you're going to disappear without warning.

Q: What strategies would you suggest for parents who are coping with anxiety about their child's school transition?

A: If a parent is really anxious about the child starting out-of-home care, then she needs to pay attention to the fact that she feels that way. If you're not really a worrier, maybe it's time to think about what you're really concerned about. A lot of mothers are afraid that if the baby settles into the childcare setting and is happy with the provider, that the baby won't love mom anymore. This is totally not true. Just as you can love more than one child, your child can love more than one adult caregiver. Your relationship with the child is always much more intimate and intense than the childcare provider's. So you want to see the child be comfortable and happy with the childcare provider; it doesn't mean the child doesn't love you too.

If it's possible to arrange it, a very worried parent can also benefit from a gradual entry into the childcare setting. They can get to know the people who work there, how they work together, that may help the parent.

Babies look at Mom and Dad's faces for cues. It's called social referencing. And if the mother or father looks scared and worried, then the baby gets very upset and worried. If the parent thinks something is scary, the baby won't be interested in it. Your worry and your expression can really trigger the baby's anxiety.

Q: How can parents best prepare for their child's transition from toddler-hood to being in school?

A: Make sure that you minimize the amount of stress you're under before school starts. For example, as much as we all love vacations, there's a period of time coming back from vacations that is really pretty fraught. There are bills to pay, mounds of laundry, etc. That's probably not going to be a good time to start a child at a new setting. So if you're going to plan a vacation, you don't want to plan it next to the start of a new school year. Plan ahead as much as you can to minimize stress and create a calming environment as the first day of school approaches.

Q: Are there signs of normal back to school jitters vs. more serious issues?

A: I would say that the major thing is how long it lasts. For most children who are 3 years old or older, within a week they should be able to settle into a new routine. Every Monday morning they may resist a little bit, but they'll eventually come around. Almost all children need to have a gradual transition. Stop in the doorway, go in when they're ready. But if you have a child who's never ready to go in on their own, to the point where we have to pick them up and carry them in under protest, maybe that means that the whole thing has been done too abruptly for them. Enlist caregivers in helping plan a transition that is smoother for the child. In a high-quality childcare center, there will be staff on hand that would be thrilled and happy to help you with this; it's what they're trained for.

For more information on separation anxiety, Dr. Mercer recommends checking out articles on Zero to Three, a national, nonprofit organization whose aim is to improve the lives of infants and toddlers through training and education of parents and teachers, as well as the helpful articles on the National Association for the Education of Young Children website.

Read next: How to know if your child is ready to start kindergarten

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