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Published on August 02, 2022

teen girl smiling wearing backpack

Back-to-School and Separation Issues

Back-to-school is often an exciting time for children but for some, it might be overwhelming.

Recognize the Signs of Anxiety

It is normal for children to experience anxiety when separating from parents or caregivers. Here are some examples:

  • Early-school-aged kids’ separation worry can unfold in different ways. Some concerns might be – Are they going to like their new teacher? Are they going to enjoy their new school? Are their friends going to be in their class?
  • Tweens and teens may have physical symptoms such as stomach aches and trouble sleeping, while others may experience headaches or a racing heartbeat. At this age they are better able to describe their feelings.

Some shyness or worry about schedules, schoolwork, or friends is natural during the back-to-school transition. Anxiety symptoms that persist beyond the first few weeks of school and that seem excessive may require consultation with a specialist.

Seek help from your child’s medical care provider or school counselor.

How to Help Kids of Any Age

Visit the school ahead of time. Before the first day stop by and check out the classroom, and spend a bit of time role playing how the drop-off will happen. This may benefit those slow-adapting kids.

For younger children it may help to read books about new experiences, one of my favorites is “The Kissing Hand” by Audrey Penn. It focuses on a young raccoon going to school and what special thing his mother does for him.

You can talk about and affirm emotions your child may be feeling. You might help younger kids name them, like worried, nervous or others.

What to Say in Conversations with Kids

Try this: “It is natural to worry a little bit. I think it is OK and there may be other kids who feel the same.”

When children express anxiety, let them know you hear them and try not to talk them out of their feelings. Let children know that even if they are nervous, they can face their fears with your support.

Agree on a goodbye ritual or routine. It might be a special wave, hug, specific drop-off place or even blowing a kiss that the child can catch.

Do not negotiate nor respond to protests with additional explanation or negotiation. Instead, focus on the positive.

Follow your plan, and leave without hesitating. Project a calm confidence/trust with warmth and caring. For example say something like, “While you stay at school, I will be at work” or “I will see you later.”

Older kids can be offered a positive focus for the week. I often told my girls as they left the house to wait for the bus to “Share your smile with someone today.”

You also can use focus words like:

  • Helpful
  • Friendship
  • Courage
  • Kindness
  • Perseverance
  • Inspire
  • Confidence
  • Independence

Positive self-talk has been linked to increased self-esteem in kids.

Remember, kids look to us for guidance. You can acknowledge some level of concern and teach some positive preventive tools.

Learn about child- and family-centered care at Avera Children’s Hospital.

By Twila Perkinson, B.S. Family Life Educator

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