I wrote this blog in the fall of 2019 before everything shifted for us and our children. However, as we have shifted back into school and work, separation anxiety is becoming even more challenging for some. Young kids have a hard time with transitions, change, and saying goodbye to their parents. It isn’t uncommon, but some kids really struggle in a way that disrupts their learning and also their parent’s schedule. Below, is my original blog with updates since we are now supporting children who have experienced social isolation (quarantine) and parents who often get to stay home (and work) while they have to leave and go to school.
The Clingy, Panicked Kid
It’s fall, the kids are all back to school, and what is the #1 challenge I see coming through my door? Separation anxiety. If you are a parent you’ve probably seen that panicked look in your child’s eyes – you’ve felt those little arms wrapped around your legs with superhero strength and those tiny hands grabbing at your hands, your clothes, your bag, and, literally anything else they can latch on to.
Young kids often struggle with transitions and goodbyes. Even if they’ve gone to daycare or preschool, the hugeness of elementary school can be overwhelming. There are so many kids! There is so much sensory stuff with noise overload, kids moving in all directions, new smells, and adults everywhere, but none of them are your mommy or daddy.
I’ve Been There Too
My daughter just started Kindergarten this year and I was right there on the blacktop with all of the other parents, watching my child walk up the stairs with tears in her eyes after I gave her 400 hugs and kissed her goodbye 200 times. Those tears broke my heart and I asked everyone I know if It gets better. Some people said to give it a month and others said it can take up to 6 months. I wondered, how can we as parents handle this level of upset for 6 months? It takes so much trust; trust in the school that they can keep our children safe, trust in the teacher that they might be willing to offer a hug when needed and to be fun and distracting to give our child a great school experience; trust in the other kids that they will be nice and welcoming. But, we also have to trust ourselves that we can let go just enough to let them grow.
Some Will Struggle More
My daughter and many of her friends were able to slowly change from panic-stricken, tearful faces to smiles and happy goodbyes. But some kids struggle to be ok. They can’t seem to calm down at school. It might take hours to stop crying or they might run from the classroom or sit alone in a quiet corner, unwilling to participate. Their parents are called day after day to help or to come and get them. These are the kids I see walking through my therapy doors, their parents exhausted and torn between the need to help their child and the need to work or carry on with adult responsibilities. “This has never happened before, I don’t know how to help her,” they tell me. And I understand that this is hurting everyone. It is painful and it’s consuming each and every school day.
Four Strategies to Support Your Anxious Child
I recommend therapy support at this point. But, there are also a few strategies I give to immediately start offering some relief. Anxiety is usually grown out of irrational scary beliefs or irrational thoughts (they don’t make a lot of sense if we stop to think about them). Your child might be terrified that bad things can happen to you only when they are not with you. They might believe that you are going to forget all about them and never come to get them – that you are having such a good time without them. Or, they might believe that you are literally the only person that can keep them safe. We adults might believe this one too.
Ask Them About it
The first strategy I recommend is to ask them what they are afraid of. Sometimes they may not know but giving them space to share or play about what is scary will help. Yes, pay attention to their play. This can tell you a lot. You must let them get it all out before you start the counterattack against the irrational thoughts.
Let them know that you can see how scared they are and that you want them to feel better. They are not bad kids with bad behaviors. They are scared. Sometimes it’s surprising to hear what they’re actually thinking and the stories they will tell.
Give Them Something to Remember
Second, try to think of ways they can have reminders of you throughout the day. A lot of schools will encourage you to bring in pictures of your family they can put up in the classroom. My daughter’s teacher allowed parents to record a message to our child on the classroom IPads.
Maybe you could find a locket to put a picture in or make a special friendship bracelet together. You could come up with a secret handshake or gesture that is just between you. The book “A Kissing Hand For Chester Raccoon,” by Audrey Penn is a great way to normalize the fear and gives an idea of how Chester’s mom helped him feel better.
Another great book that helps kids express their fears and feelings is “Are You Eating Candy Without Me?,” by Draga Jenny Malesevic. Many of our children have gotten so used to being around us parents all of the time, and let’s face it, being entertained to keep them busy and happy, that they are completely afraid they’re missing out on something amazing.
They refuse to believe that you are working and boring and that nothing has changed regarding how you spend your day. Except maybe now you can get a lot more work done. School isn’t always the most fun place to be and they want to have fun, with you. Understanding this can help us think about ways to address their fears. It can help teachers and school staff as well. They can be kind of fun too, believe it or not.
Third, consistency is key. As our children adjust to this change we have to be sure we do what we say we’ll do, consistently. If your child wants you to stay until the bell, let them know if you can and plan to do it every day until they’ve adjusted. If you have to go, let them know and come up with a special way to say goodbye. My daughter is ok with me leaving but requires “air hugs” (acting like you’re hugging the air) as I walk away. I’m sure I look silly, but I feel no judgment from the other parents and it makes my daughter feel better.
Hold it Together
Finally, keep your cool. While all of the other parents standing by might have some idea of what this is like for you, it’s best that your child doesn’t. Get your poker face ready and prepare to act like you believe everything is going to be ok. They need this from us, to set the stage for a normal day where there is no reason to worry. You can cry when you get back to your car.
Sometimes, also, parents end up feeling a lot of anger toward the school. If you are feeling some anger this might be a sign that talking to someone at the school is needed. The psychologist, social worker, or even the nurse might be able to help think of ideas to help. Don’t be afraid to make suggestions you think will help and to see if they are possible. Sometimes we need to advocate for what our child needs and what we think will help. When we communicate with the school it helps us with that consistency piece we talked about too.
I know these are simple strategies to support a challenge that seems anything but simple. If you feel your child’s reaction to separation from you is bigger than other kids, consider giving us a call to begin therapy – www.upliftmechildtherapy.com