Separation Anxiety and School

For some children, the first day of school causes stress. Sometimes, just thinking about this first day of school causes stress. This is called separation anxiety. The child is anxious of being separated from home and family. Common feelings are fear and panic. A little of this is normal. Many children feel this way and it causes no problems. But the anxiety can be very strong in other children. This may happen when a child first starts school. They might even refuse to go to school. Separation anxiety may affect children 4 years to 14 years of age. It may reoccur every year as a new school year approaches. By learning more about this condition, you can help your child get past his or her fears. 

CAUSES

Many different things can cause a child to feel separation anxiety, these may include:

  • Your own feelings. If you are anxious about your child going off to school, your child may sense this. That can make the child anxious, too.

  • Change. These changes may cause separation anxiety:

  • A new baby at home.

  • Your family has just moved.

  • Going to school for the first time.

  • Going to a new school. For example when a child moves from elementary to middle school.

  • Your child has a teacher they do not like.

  • A recent vacation. You may have just spent a lot of time together.

  • Your child had a recent illness.

  • Any stressful situation at home. This could be a family member who is sick, or who recently died. It might be the death of a pet.

SYMPTOMS

Signs of separation anxiety usually start at home. They get worse and worse until school starts. Usually they go away once school gets going. Common symptoms include:

  • Crying and pleading.

  • Temper tantrums.

  • Being clingy. The child wants to be with you always. He or she may actually cling to your arms or legs.

  • Being afraid.

  • Worrying that something will happen to you.

  • Trouble sleeping.

  • Nightmares.

  • Headache or stomachache. The child may develop these symptoms right before going to school.

TREATMENT

  • Most of the time, a few simple steps can resolve this problem:

  • Be calm. When the adult gets excited or shows anxiety, this may upset the child.

  • Be firm. You can still be caring and gentle. Just be firm, too. When it is time to leave, say a loving but firm goodbye. Never wait till your child is distracted and then sneak away.

  • Talk to the child's teacher. The teacher should be told about your child's fears. You may also want to alert the school nurse. If your child is very anxious, ask if you can check in once school has started. Ask if you could call, or e-mail.

  • Sometimes separation anxiety is very strong. This is unusual. It causes the child to miss school or do badly in the classroom. Medical treatment may be needed. This may include:

  • Counseling for the child. A mental health caregiver would talk with your child. The aim would be to teach your child how to cope with anxiety, fear, or stress.

  • Family counseling. Sessions would include you, your child, and other family members.

  • Medicine to help control your child's anxiety.

HOME CARE INSTRUCTIONS

You and other adults can help your child deal with separation anxiety. For example, it may help to:

  • Be a good listener. Encourage your child to talk about his or her feelings.

  • Try to make home as stress free as possible.

  • Make sure your child does not go to school tired, hungry, or sick.

  • Talk often with your child's teacher to see how your child is doing. E-mail may work well for this.

  • Be as dependable as possible. For example, if you are going out for awhile, be back when you say you will.

  • Remind your child of past successes. Talk about good experiences the child had at school. Remind the child that things got better after awhile.

  • Teach your child simple relaxation techniques. Things like taking deep breaths. Or counting to 10 to calm down. Or maybe thinking about a safe or happy place.

  • Let the child take a favorite toy, blanket, or stuffed animal to school.

  • Praise your child for any success that is related to going to school.

  • Put a note in your child's lunch box. Just a simple message can remind the child that you are thinking of him or her.

  • Once the anxiety has eased up, remember to tell your child how proud you are of him or her.

SEEK MEDICAL CARE IF:

  • The child's separation anxiety lasts for more than 4 weeks after school has started.

  • You have an older child that develops separation anxiety or refuses to go to school.

  • Your child has severe symptoms of separation anxiety. Your child may vomit or have trouble breathing.

  • Separation anxiety is keeping your child from acting normally at school or at home.