Overcoming separation anxiety

For many parents, new Preppies and children returning to school, this can be an extremely tense time of year. The trepidation can arise throughout the holidays, then increasingly loom like an encroaching storm cloud as January arrives. Some try a different path each year towards the first day of school and still arrive at the same place – separation anxiety.

As a mother of three boys, I too have experienced the first day ‘Child Desperately Attached to Leg Upon Departure Syndrome’. On several occasions having to extract myself from an unavoidable scene on the school grounds, fighting back the distressed tears as the incredible rush of guilt engulfed me all at once.

The joy of parenting involves plenty of exhaustion, surprising delights and trials. As a counsellor, it is a truly rewarding experience to empower clients when we collaborate on being one step ahead of our limitations or potentially woeful scenarios. The whole ‘back to school’ event is one of them!

The best advantage we can give everyone involved is to calm the ‘emotional centre’ of our brain. This is the area responsible for detecting and alerting us to threat contributing to emotions such as fear. With preparation we have a much better chance of accessing our ‘smart brain’, being the pre-frontal cortex that allows us to think clearly and behave in a calm manner.

An obvious main concern for many children commencing school is the fear that Mum or Dad won’t come back. Furthermore, the torrent of fears can include:

  • What if I don’t know where the toilet is?
  • What if my friend is not at school?
  • What if I miss Mum and Dad?
  • What if the other kids are mean to me?
  • How will I know when you’re coming back?
  • What happens at lunchtime?
  • Where do I play?

So, if you’re expecting the unexpected for school this year, I’ve joined forces with two Junior School Prep and Year 1 experts at the Immanuel Lutheran College, Mrs Naomi Rogers and Mrs Leanne Auricht. Together we’ve created 16 wonderful tips to make your back to school experience something to look forward to.

1. Be positive

Talk about going to school as an upbeat experience. Don’t plant worry seeds in your child’s head or allow them to hear your own concerns voiced with others.

2. Arm them with knowledge

Patiently answer all their questions and reassure them it’s normal to have concerns of the unknown.

3. Role play

Let your child know what to expect. They pretend to be the parent while you act as the child. Go through all the motions of the first day of school: waking you up, getting you dressed, feeding you breakfast, dropping you off and finally, picking you up.

4. Create a countdown calendar

Make a chart together that counts down the days until school starts. Not only can your child visualise the time frame, but prompts you to get organised!

5. Find some friendly faces

Find one or two other children that will be in your child’s class and set up a play date before school starts. It will give you a chance to get to know some fellow parents and help acclimatise your little one to their new surroundings.

6. Get the sleep schedule on track

The long and sunny summer months are conducive to later bed times. Gradually get them back on schedule, moving up their bedtime by 15-30 minutes every few days. 7pm is a great sleep time for younger children. When it’s time for school to start, their internal body clocks are already adjusted!

7. Read some books

Fictional characters have a way of making difficult situations easy since they always have a happy ending. The stories can give your child a natural opportunity to share any fears and often have key kid-friendly phrases that parents can re-use to reassure their children. Here are a few to choose from:

  • I Love You All Day Long
  • The Kissing Hand
  • Go Home, Mrs. Beekman! 
  • The Night Before Kindergarten

8. De-stress your morning routine

Do as much as you can the night before such as packing lunch boxes, lay out uniforms and find those elusive hats. Be organised!

9. Don’t be late

Set your alarm clock half an hour early to get your own morning preparation out of the way in order to focus on your little student. This alleviates children ‘feeding’ from your own potential stress levels.

10. Encourage a help-seeking mentality

Assure your child that all questions may not be answered on the first day, but teachers are there to help. They want to help you so don’t be afraid to ask.

11. Keep the drop-off short but sweet

One of the biggest mistakes parents make is to turn school drop-off into the long goodbye. Give them one last hug, take a deep breath, trust the teachers and walk away. Even if your child starts crying, don’t linger because it will make it worse.

12. Create a special goodbye ritual

Whether it’s a silly handshake or a simple call and response phrase like, “See ya later alligator/After a while crocodile”. Find something unique to do as you say your goodbyes. A repetitive ritual not only creates a familiar comforting cue, but a firm exit point for you to leave.

13. Pack a piece of home

If your child has a comfort item like a little blanket, allow them to include it in the backpack so they’ll have a bit of familiarity that reminds them of you that they can go and look at/cuddle during the day.

14. Nurturing statement

As essential it is for adults to ensure their self-talk is nurturing and enabling, your child could use words of wisdom they can recite to themselves. “I can do it and I am brave!” or Winnie the Pooh’s, “I am braver than I believe, stronger than I seem, smarter than I think and loved more that I know.”

15. Celebrate at pick-up

At the end of the school day, make sure you are not late (first child, first day, I misinterpreted the pick-up time as 30 minutes later – whoops!). Then, tell them how proud you are. Ask them what they are looking forward to tomorrow so you can keep the enthusiasm going.

16. Be patient

It will generally take a few weeks before your child fully adjusts to the new school routines. Keep your morning schedule consistent, your goodbyes short, and your little student will eventually adjust to school.

By Joanne Wilson

Joanne Wilson is a professional Relationship Counsellor and Certified Clinical Neuropsychotherapy Practitioner of TheConfidante Counselling in Buderim and Cotton Tree on the Sunshine Coast.

She is the feature relationships columnist for the Sunshine Coast Daily, weekly radio guest for Radio Salt 106.5 and loves inspiring the community through guest speaking invitations and producing her own books.

Email jo@theconfidantecounselling.com or visit www.sunshinecoastcounselling.com for further information.