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Back-to-School Separation Anxiety - Dr. Barbara Pedalino

Life is Resuming…Back-to-School

Now that life is resuming, you may experience a realm of emotions about going out. As much as you may feeling like leaving your home, simultaneously you may experience ambivalence, apprehension, insecurity. Your children may feel elated about returning to school but they also may be uneasy about “restarting” life. A bit of uneasiness is understandable. What if this uneasiness becomes extreme?

What challenges do children face upon returning to school?

There are firsts again. First day back to school. First day away from home. First day apart from parents. First day socializing with peers. First day dealing with schoolwork. First day complying with expectations. And on…

But there are also some very new firsts—wearing a mask all day, physical distancing, health worries, sanitizing, frequent hand washing. Did children learn enough from virtual learning? Are they up to grade level? After so much togetherness, are their family members okay?

According to Jennifer Louie, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute,

“There’s just anxiety in the air, and I think kids feel that. I think they are wondering: Are we sure it’s safe to go back? And are other people safe? And is it safe to touch this?”

Parents may also feel anxious about their children returning to school. While being concerned about their children’s health and safety, they may unintentionally foster insecurities. Children may internalize their parents’ anxiety. Children can become very fearful, needy, and clingy. Sometimes anticipation of fears is even more stressful than actual experience.

What are symptoms of Separation Anxiety?

Symptoms of separation anxiety can reveal in a variety of ways:

• Refusing to go to school.
• Physical complaints such as headaches, stomachaches, or sore body parts.
• Fear of being alone, even in their own room.
• Nightmares and refusing to sleep alone.
• Withdrawing or acting out with temper tantrums.
• Panic attacks or bedwetting.
• Excessive worrying about family members due to possible illness, injury, accident, disaster or death.
• Fear of something bad happening like getting lost, robbed or kidnapped.

What can parents do to minimize anxieties as their children resume school?

There are many strategies parents can utilize to help their children adjust to back-to-school:

• Empower your children by modeling confidence in yourself and them. It is important to convey recognition that they feel whatever they feel and wish them good luck to cope.
• Validate your children’s worries. You can say that you share some of their realistic worries and explain ways you are handling them.
• As you listen to your children’s worries, stay calm, positive, and cautious not to feed their issues by over-listening. Try to keep it brief.
• Rather than ask your children what “worries” them, ask them what they “wonder” and their ideas to manage.
• Express pride in your children’s bravery to attend school despite their fears.
• Balance worries with positives they can look forward to at school and after school.
• Establish a brief ritual for saying goodbye—a hug, a hand kiss they can keep all day, a small trinket from home, a special secret together.
• Avoid promising something that is uncertain. While you can’t promise your children will always be safe from harm, you can say bad things usually don’t happen to children and all the adults are working hard to keep them safe to the best of their ability.

It can be very painful when your children cry about resuming school, at drop off, or exhibit any of the aforementioned symptoms. If you find that extreme reactions persist for 3 to 4 weeks, it is time to seek out professional service. As a clinical psychologist, I coach parents in ways they can be more effective with their children. With children, we problem-solve their challenges together by means of play therapy or cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) depending on their age.

With understanding, gentle reassurance, and TLC, your children will adjust. Be patient with your children and yourselves!  You can read more about positive parenting on this blog:  The Life-long Impact of Parenting.