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Managing Separation Anxiety in the Transition Back to School and/or Work

Whether back to school means kids are headed to a physical classroom, starting remote learning again, or some combination, separation of some kind is inevitable. Many parents are also looking at going back to work in some capacity, which means that kids who have been with their parents continuously for the last several months may experience anxiety leading up to this transition.

Transitions mean that kids are going to experience change. Change is hard because it disrupts stability -- which can feel scary for many children. Preparing kids for these transitions can help ease some of the separation anxiety they may experience in the coming weeks and months.

Preparation is incredibly important for both kids and parents. Practicing will look different for kids of different ages and depending on anxiety levels.

Some of our tips for practicing:

1. Find out what your kids already know, or what they believe. Explore your child's understanding about going back to school before offering information. A great way to explore is by observing your child's play and engaging them in play surrounding the topic of school or separation.

  • How does the child doll or character feel when he/she goes back to school?

  • What does he/she do?

  • How does the mom/dad character feel?

  • What do they do to make the child's character feel better?

  • Play is a child's natural language and can be where children express their feelings.

2. Once you know what your child does/does not know, tell a story to make sense of any new routine. Children need age appropriate information to make meaning and to feel in control. Answer questions directly and honestly.

Older children need more time to process; younger children need less time -- and have less of a concept of time. For younger kids, a few days prior is a good guideline and for older kids (especially those who are prone to worry), giving more time for practice (1-2 weeks) might be helpful.

3. Involve your child in the practicing plan. Give choices. Only practice in times of calm, not in times of distress or dysregulation. Be honest, clear & direct. Make a plan and try to stick to it as much as possible. Explain the plan to your child in language they will understand before you practice.

Play and art can be very helpful to practice separation as a first step before actually separating.

Kids often don't have the ability to regulate emotions in the way that adults do. As such, these feelings sometimes come out as behaviors. Some behaviors you might expect to see:

  • Trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep

  • Nightmares

  • Headaches/stomach aches, especially leading up to moments of separation

  • Increased tantrums or irritability

  • Crying & whining

  • Pleading, negotiating

  • Worrying

  • Clinginess

Be a calm presence. Regulate yourself first by taking a deep breath and reminding yourself that your child is having a hard time and that you can cope with this. Limit any dangerous behaviors and then be curious about the feeling underneath the behaviors you are seeing.

Try labeling the emotions you see for your child, and then validate them and offer reassurance. For example, "It's scary to be away from Mommy, especially because we haven't been apart in a long time. It's okay to be scared. I'm here. I love you."

Prior to actually separating, these ideas might help ease anxiety and soothe feelings of sadness, worry, & fear:

  • If your child is nervous about separating, consider creating or using something special between yourself and your child. For example, tell your child to pick a stuffed animal for you to hold onto while he/she is at school, and give them something of yours (within reason of course) for them to hold while they are separated from you. You can also make something together to remind you of each other or to hold while they are missing you.

  • Talk with your child about what you do while they aren't with you. Walk them through your day and remind them that even when they are not with you, you are always thinking about them and missing them. Act this out through play or draw a picture showing this to your child. 

  • Create visuals for your parallel schedules. For example, at 10AM, Mommy is at a meeting and at 10AM, Sasha is in reading class. Connect the child's day with your own. Bridging the gap between the separation builds connection and restores attachment. Connection is key.

  • Make a plan for "Special time" with each of your kids when you are reunited. For example, 15 minutes of special time just the two of you when the school and work day ends. No phones, TV, distractions. Let your child choose and lead whatever you do together. Stick to that plan.

  • Schedule video chats for you and your child to look forward to if your child is having an especially difficult time. Be intentional about when you are scheduling. It should be predictable and consistent.

Remember, some degree of separation anxiety is normal. Uncertainty can be very scary for a child, and there will likely be behavioral regression. Feelings of safety will take time -- stay the course.

If you find this helpful, are concerned about your child's behavior and/or think that you and/or your child might benefit from additional support, contact us to learn about our virtual therapy services.

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