Helping kids deal with separation anxiety when going back to school
Using strategies to calm reluctance and refusal around your child’s fear and anxiety of leaving home
By Anisha Patel-Dunn, Chief Medical Officer, LifeStance Health
This article originally appeared on Thrive Global.
We all want the best for our kids. As a psychiatrist, mother, and a person who struggled with separation anxiety as a child, I have worked hard over the years with my own kids in hopes that they will not struggle with separation anxiety as badly as I did. I have a vivid memory of meeting with my teacher, principal, school counselor and mom when I was in first grade to talk about and explore strategies to help me.
I have always worked full-time, and my husband and I have tried to be very thoughtful and consistent parents, filling our daughters’ lives with many loving adult caregivers and role models. Despite our efforts, our youngest daughter has been struggling with severe separation anxiety since starting fourth grade last month.
She’s sleeping in my bed every night and doesn’t want me to leave her side. She’s crying at school “missing Mommy.” She doesn’t want to go to school and thinks of every excuse she can, from the moment she gets home to the time she goes to bed. She’s not able to enjoy many of the activities that have previously brought her joy and is easily drawn back to me and wanting to be with me.
We are now each wearing matching hair ties on our wrists that I gave to her as we were both brushing our teeth. This is my “quick psychiatrist trick” of giving her a transitional object that she can take to school with her to look at and know that I’m thinking of her all the time. We both wear it on our left wrist, and she touches it, looks at it or plays with it when she gets sad in class.
Her sister blew up a large photo of our family dog, Mango, wearing one of the girls’ sunglasses. She has this in her backpack and looks at it when she gets sad to make her smile and change her focus to a happy part of our family and happy time.
One day, I sent her to school with the same t-shirt that I had a mom-size version of, so that we both had the same shirt on all day. We spent a weekend morning looking online for matching PJs.
I have reached out to the school and talked with the nurse about what is going on, and she and the other staff in the principal’s office have been very supportive and helpful.
I candidly texted all the moms of her friends about what was going on and asked them for help and if they wouldn’t mind asking their kids to covertly try to be “watching out for my daughter and giving her some extra love/kindness.” There was an immediate outpouring of kindness that I really appreciated, including sharing their own stories or difficulties with their kids.
My husband and I have also been openly talking with our daughter, trying to normalize how hard this transition time can be, given all the time we’ve spent together during the pandemic. We’ve tried to fill our time out of school with plenty of opportunities for quality time and bonding. We spend the evenings together as a family, playing games, going on bike rides and hikes with our family dog.
Since going to school is not a choice, we also take turns giving choices to each of our daughters, so they feel like they have some control and autonomy over their lives. She also gives us suggestions on what she wants to pack for her lunch and snack.
We’ve also been openly asking our daughter what we can do to help, so that we can hear her perspective directly. After several conversations, she’s able to admit that she can feel overcrowded at school, and her classroom feels too big with too many kids in it. I’m still working on learning more of her insights, but I have been able to get a lot out of our conversations at night before going to bed. For us, reading together and then talking a bit after I shut the lights out has helped her open up, free associate, and be more honest. She seems to feel secure doing these things in my bed with me.
Some of the above strategies I have learned from my psychiatry training and practice, and others are pieces of wisdom I have picked up by being vulnerable with my mom friends and professionals at the school. In my own coping with my daughter’s suffering, these conversations have been not only productive, but also healing, by normalizing our family’s struggle and feeling the support of a community that is there to help and support one another.