With school starting this week, your child may have some anxious energy. Some nerves are expected from young children at any age, but if your child becomes preoccupied with the fear of not being with you and has physiological symptoms like headaches, stomachaches, excessive crying, or even panic attacks and or nightmares, they may be suffering from separation anxiety. It is expected that most children will experience this under the age of 2 and then again around 3rd grade. However, first day jitters can affect children of all ages, especially if it’s their first time being away from home or if they are starting a new school. Children that are homeschooled can also benefit from these tips when they go to camps or classes.
So let’s try to set them up for success! If your little one is having trouble adjusting to the new school year, you can try these tips to see if they help! And if the problems persist or worsen, please ask your child’s school for a counseling referral. First and foremost, children feed from our anxiety. So if you are anxious about your child going to school, especially if it’s the first time, your child will pick up on it and also be anxious. This isn’t to say you cannot be empathetic with your child. Be confident, but be human. If you are a little scared of the new change it’s ok to have that conversation with them if they feel the same way. However, if they are showing no fear, be confident, brave, and strong and cry when you get to the car.
Your child needs to feel safe in their environment. It is healthy for their development to be able to trust other caregivers, like teachers, and trust that you will return at the end of the day! So what else can you do?
- Tape, glue or pin a photo of you (or you and your child together) to his or her backpack, lunchbox, or jacket. This way they have something tangible of you that they can see and touch!
- Have your child take a pillowcase, shirt, towel, socks, etc to school that has your scent on it to keep in his or her backpack or at their desk. This will help calm their sensory system when they smell you and feel like you are close.
- Don’t linger! The longer you stay during/after school drop off will actually make your child more clingy and anxious. Give them a hug, a kiss, and tell them that you love them and then leave. They are in good hands with professionals that are experienced working with children. The longer you stick around your child will feel as if you don’t trust the environment and will also, in turn, become apprehensive.
- Prep your child before you leave the house and let them know what to expect. Give them a rundown of what they will do when you drop them off, their daily schedule, and when you’ll be back to pick them up. The more prepared they are, the less they will feel insecure, scared, and anxious about what they are anticipating in their imagination.
- Give them incremental incentives to look forward to if they are able to stay at school for certain amounts of time without a phone call home to you, crying, or something similar. Start small. Give your child a reward of some kind if they can survive at school without you and without crying until 10am, then lunch, then 2pm, until you reach the entire day. If they take their day in short increments, the day will seem more manageable and appear to go by quicker.
- Teach them how to tell time! By preschool, most children are able to recognize numbers, so teach your child what time you will be back. They can feel empowered by watching the clock from time to time (no pun intended) to see if it’s the time that you’ll be back! Make sure your child doesn’t become obsessive about this and isn’t constantly asking the teacher what time it is and how much longer until you will be back. I suggest giving them a watch to wear so they can take their “clock” outside during recess and lunch. Otherwise, they may insist to stay inside to stay near the safety of the clock on the wall.
- If your child is old enough and is allowed, they can schedule a time to text/call you during recess, lunch, and or regular intervals throughout the day that you can wean each day or each week as they become more comfortable in their environment.
- Talk to your child’s teacher about having an older sibling or a buddy/mentor from an older grade that will be assigned to keep them company or check in with them during certain parts of the day. Children typically will be preoccupied in a structured environment like in the classroom, but need some extra love during unstructured times at recess, lunch, and on the playground.
- Sign your child up for school counseling, even temporarily, for your child to be able to express themselves emotionally with trained individuals and also learn additional coping skills!
- Focus on the positive! Ask your child about their favorite part of the day and what went right and try not to dwell on what didn’t go well. Try not to shame them or invalidate their feelings if they are having a tough time adjusting. It can be frustrating, especially if you are a working parent, but try to stay calm and patient and know this phase will pass, too.