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Soothe Separation Anxiety

A back-to-school lesson plan on successful good-byes.

This fall, your child may separate from you for the first time as he starts school or daycare. Knowing your child as only a parent can, you can probably anticipate just how this scene will unfold. If you’re concerned that your child will have a meltdown at the bus stop or classroom door and leave you feeling helpless, fear not. There are practical rules you can follow to help ease separation anxiety for your child — and yourself — when you say good-bye, paving the way for a calm and pleasant departure.

Prepare your child

Take time before the first day of school to go over exactly what will occur. Visit the venue where you will separate. Review the day’s schedule and explain what will take place between separation and pickup. For instance: “I’ll pick you up after you play, hear a story and have a snack.” Go over the schedule every day until your child seems comfortable saying good-bye.

Acknowledge your child’s feelings.

Tell your child: “I know you will miss me. I’ll miss you, too. It’s hard to say good-bye.” Or: “You feel sad that we won’t be together today. It’s OK to feel sad today. Maybe tomorrow you’ll feel better.”

Set a limit and stick to it.

Be specific about where and how you’ll part. For example: “I will say good-bye to you at the door of the school.” Or: “The teacher will greet you at the car, so I’ll say good-bye to you there.”

If a bashful nature is feeding your child's separation anxiety, check out the age-appropriate advice in "Overcoming Shyness."

If you give in and walk your child to the door when you said you would say good-bye in the car, your child will expect that and more the next day. Lingering after saying good-bye the first time or readjusting the limit only prolongs the good-bye and worsens the situation.

Be reassuring.

Tell your child what time you will pick her up. Be as consistent as possible from day to day — and always be there when you say you will.

Maintain your integrity.

Never drop off a child without saying good-bye or sneak away when your child isn’t looking. This will undermine your child’s trust in you.

Do not be afraid to leave a crying child.

It is rare if the crying and sadness a child expresses at the moment of separation extends for any great period of time after a parent leaves. If it will alleviate your concern, ask the teacher or caregiver to give you a quick call or send a text message to let you know when your child stops crying.

Know yourself.

Recognize whether sad feelings in the moment of separation are truly your child’s — or your own. Your child will feed on your feelings. Approach the situation positively to help your child master successful good-byes.

As you learn to help your child separate, understand that all young children crave power. When confronted with the knowledge that she is powerless to keep you with her, your child may find ways to seek that power. If she discovers that crying, screaming, throwing a tantrum or
showing strong signs of sadness are methods that weaken you and make you give in, you will likely encounter those reactions. The closer you stick to the ground rules, the more you will help ensure a warm, peaceful good-bye, colored by eager excitement about the day to unfold.

Marie Conti is head of The Wetherill School in Gladwyne, PA and has 35 years’ experiencehelping children and parents separate sucessfully.

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