The beginning of every school year is an exciting time for many children. It means getting to see their friends after a long summer break and looking forward to a fun time of learning ahead. However, not all kids might see it this way. Some children may actually dread the thought of going to school, so much so that they experience separation anxiety.
This may happen even if children aren’t going to school for the first time. New experiences away from parents or other loved ones often make kids feel anxious. While separation anxiety is a normal part of development in all children, it may be a cause for concern when it disrupts everyday life.
If you are a parent or guardian who wants to know how to help a child with separation anxiety at school, then read on to learn more.
Separation Anxiety in Children
Anxiety is a feeling of dread, uneasiness, or fear that is usually caused by stress. Separation anxiety is a more specific type of anxiety that involves children having a fearful reaction to being away from their parents or caregivers.
Separation anxiety is a normal stage in childhood development. It can surface in infancy at about 8 months of age and continue on during childhood years. In most cases, children are able to resolve their symptoms of separation anxiety.
However, children may continue to experience anxious feelings about separation that do not correspond to their age. For instance, consistent signs of separation anxiety in school age children can raise concerns, especially for kids that have been going to school for several years. If these symptoms persist for four weeks or longer and start to cause problems with functioning, then it may be an indicator of separation anxiety disorder.
This may be especially challenging for children who are adjusting to the post pandemic shift. Studies have found that these dramatic changes can intensify separation problems [*], prompting parents to be more responsive to their children’s needs at this stressful time.
While the physical symptoms of distress that often accompany separation anxiety often develop in childhood, they may carry through to adulthood. This emphasizes the need for proper attention and care.
Why Do Children Experience Separation Anxiety at School?
Children may experience separation anxiety at school because it is their first time being separated from their parents or guardians. For many preschoolers, stepping into a new environment without the security of having their caregivers around can be a terrifying thought.
Separation anxiety also affects children who have gone to school before. Since they also experience the stress that comes with changing teachers, classmates, and sometimes even schools, they may also experience some level of anxiety.
Common Symptoms of Separation Anxiety in Children
School separation anxiety can manifest as several different symptoms in children. Here are just a few that you can look out for:
- Refusal to go to school
- Physical symptoms (e.g., stomach pains, headaches, etc.)
- Expressing fear that harm will come to a loved one
- Difficulty sleeping
- Recurring nightmares with a theme of separation
- Fear of being alone
- Panic or temper tantrums when separated from parents or caregivers
Parents and guardians can also refer to a checklist of anxiety symptoms to help them identify whether their child may have any indicators of anxiety.
How to Help Children With Separation Anxiety at School
There are several ways to help children with separation anxiety at school. If your child is struggling with some of the symptoms listed above, then try these tips.
Have a trial run
A big source of separation anxiety at school is the fear of an unknown environment or situation. It can be very helpful to visit your child’s school together before classes begin. This provides a sense of comfort, even if you’re just walking around outside the campus. As you do this, talk to your child about the things they can look forward to. Ask a trusted and familiar staff member from school to be present The first day at school can be one of the most anxiety-inducing experiences for a child. Seeing a friendly face they are familiar with as they approach school can reduce some of the initial anxiety and build feelings of security.
Give them reassurance
Reassurance can comfort a child who is very anxious about being away from their parents or caregivers. While it is helpful to provide reassurance, it is also important not to give too much comfort. Doing so may prolong the separation and actually increase feelings of anxiety. If you child keeps asking questions and asking for more reassurance, remind them that you have already done so. It helps to tell them that you are confident they will be alright and to go through some anxiety coping statements together.
Give your child a safety token
Giving your child a meaningful token that belongs to you can help them feel more grounded. Having a physical object such as a scarf, handkerchief, photo, or piece of jewelry, can ease their worries or sadness.
Encourage group interactions or activities
The more comfortable a child becomes with their classmates and other peers, the less anxious they will feel about not having a parent or a guardian around.
Start by facilitating interactions with one classmate. If you observe that your child increases their competency and comfort level over time, then you can gradually enlarge the group.
Teach your child about anxiety
For children who are still maturing and developing, complex feelings like anxiety can be very overwhelming and confusing. Talking to them about what anxiety is can help.
Not only will they be able to recognize what they are feeling (e.g., pounding heart, sweating, knot in stomach, etc.) but they will also learn how to manage it using the right techniques. It can be helpful to use a worksheet detailing the physical symptoms of anxiety to guide children.
Lighten up the mood
Separation anxiety can feel really heavy and intense for a child. Sometimes lightening up the mood may be just what they need to counter those anxious feelings. Laughing together is an effective way to help children with fear, so try to inject some of that into your morning routine before school.
Are toddlers more prone to separation anxiety at school than older children?
Separation anxiety typically peaks at around 10 to 18 months of age. While it typically ends by the time a child is 3 or 4 years old, separation anxiety can persist in some children past that age.
Is homeschooling advisable for children with anxiety at school?
It depends on the homeschooling approach. Homeschooling can be effective as long as it provides a uniquely supportive environment where anxious kids are encouraged to try new things in different situations.
What does anxiety look like in the classroom?
Anxiety can be difficult to spot in the classroom. Students may appear to be shy, fearful, or cautious. Kids with separation anxiety at school may also express their fears through crying fits or tantrums. Other children may need constant reassurance or approval from others.
The Bottom Line
Separation anxiety is a normal experience that most children will go through, especially when it comes to school. By understanding why this happens and how to help, it becomes possible for parents and guardians to build their child’s sense of security and self-confidence.
Some children may have more difficulty dealing with separation anxiety problems at school than others. If this is the case for your child, do not hesitate to consult a professional for guidance.
- Pelaez M, Novak G. Returning to School: Separation Problems and Anxiety in the Age of Pandemics. 2020.