How to Manage Separation Anxiety Each School Year

While I can’t remember every detail from school, I do remember how anxious the unknown made me every year. So when I start seeing my kids exhibit the same apprehension, I know it’s time to break out the anxiety and separation anxiety toolkit we’ve put together over the years. It’s one of my favorites – because it helps me know that my kids are learning good mental health practices. That and it makes me feel like a parenting rockstar.

Anxiety (and separation anxiety) are natural responses to the unknown

I know we all like to think we’re super sophisticated (okay, so y’all probably are!), but the fact is this: our anxious ancestors were more likely to survive. So anxiety is hardwired into us. It’s a natural response – even if that natural response renders us complete wrecks.

I know that a lot of people (and scholars) differentiate between anxiety and separation anxiety. And there are subtle (but important) differences. But, at their root, they’ve got enough similarities that we (my husband and I) treat them as one and the same. And in this sense, I’m using the word “treat” as a parent, not as a medical professional. I’m also only talking about some forms of anxiety, so cue the medical disclaimer in 3, 2, 1…

So how are anxiety and separation anxiety similar? Well, they’re both often caused by not knowing what to expect – or a big change.

And, when we don’t know what to expect, our poor little imaginations kind of go crazy. We imagine all sorts of improbable, crazy scenarios that could happen. Our brain is just trying to run the numbers, so to speak, and figure out what’s going to happen. But what happens instead, is we’re panicking – and things are probably just gonna get worse unless we address the issue.

So since the issue is not knowing what to expect, let’s fix that.

With anxiety, knowledge is literally power

When I’m experiencing anxiety, the best way for me to calm down is to focus on what’s REAL. I look around, start describing to myself what I see, and focus on my breathing. And, if I’m in a scenario that’s at all familiar, I can review what’s most likely to happen and use that to talk my brain down.

For example, when I worked in the ER and a car accident victim came in on a stretcher, I could use my experience with previous patients (and my training) to assess, treat, and help that poor kiddo feel better.

And, if they were stable enough to be conscious, our team tried to walk them through exactly what was going on (and what to expect) to ease their anxiety, too. Because while we were old hat at it, it was their first time in that situation!

Okay, that’s all fine and dandy, but how does that relate to school?

Well, my second boy is headed to kindergarten this year. We did preschool at home, so my poor boy doesn’t have ANY reference for what’s coming – at least for his end of things. I think he remembers when his older brother went to kindergarten, but I’m not sure.

The last few weeks, my boy has been on edge. He’s anxious, even if he doesn’t recognize it. Some of it is separation anxiety (because he’s never been away for me than a couple of hours at a time), but there’s also some regular anxiety, too.

So what we do is give him the knowledge he needs to calm himself down. And we do that in 3 ways.

The 3 tools we use to empower our kids to fight separation anxiety (and “regular” anxiety)

Here are the tools we use:

  1. Explain what’s coming in detail. Use lots of visual terms to paint a detailed, awesome picture.
  2. Get as much exposure (or practice) as possible before the big event or change takes place.
  3. Learn and practice anxiety-calming techniques for use as needed.

When we know a big change is coming, we start preparing our kids in advance. Like, weeks to months in advance if we can.

Each time we got pregnant, we told our kids at about 12 weeks along. Why? Because it was a big enough change that we knew we needed to prepare them (and ourselves!) for what was coming. We got props (baby dolls) so they could practice hugging, kissing, and patting the baby in an appropriate way.

For school, that means telling stories. Tell your kids stories from your school days. If there are some local kids who are willing, let them help tell stories, too! Plus, they can describe the school.

Just make sure you’re using words and language that your kids can understand. My soon-to-be-kindergartener is a smart kid, but he’s not sure what a computer lab is yet. So we describe it “like daddy’s at-home office – with lots of computers. There are so many computers that each kid gets one to use!”

Oh, and be excited. We want our kids to love school – so talk it up. Set realistic expectations – that while they may not love every part of school, they will still enjoy many parts of it – and it’ll be a good experience for them.

There are lots of reasons for that open house before school starts – but the best one is to help your child feel at ease

Okay, so full disclosure: we aren’t huge fans of big crowds. Even so, we brave the back-to-school open house crowd every year because our kids need the visual (and olfactory) frame of reference to ease their overactive imaginations. When we walk in, we show them how to find their class, where they can go to find help, and where the bathrooms are. Then, we go to their classroom and their teacher gives them a tour.

It’s crowded and crazy, but it’s oh so necessary.

Finally, make sure your child knows some self-calming and relaxation techniques

Okay, so my 7-year-old still can’t handle the more complex relaxation techniques. But that doesn’t mean we skip them! No – it means we practice them together so that he’s familiar with them. And, it means we’re practicing them with ALL of our kids – and teaching them some simple breathing techniques so that, when they’re stressed or anxious, they have something they can use to calm down.

So far, the most reliable one that the kids can use is taking a mini timeout. They sit still, close their eyes, and count to ten. Ideally, they’d also be controlling their breathing better, but it’s a work in progress. And, they’re calming down. They’re learning skills they’ll need for when things get crazy at school.

And, as each year goes on, we’ll keep managing our kids’ anxiety with them – until one day, they can do so on their own.

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Or talk to your doctor – they can help with more resources, or in extreme cases, references to counseling and/or medication.

Kimberly C. Starr

I'm a ginger who loves reading, eating, being a nurse, spending time with my family, and writing about it all. I believe humor is the best medicine, followed very closely by chocolate and tacos. To read more about me, click here.

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