Summer is filled with carefree days and relaxing, but it’s also a time when families begin anticipating the transition to the new school year. This can be an exciting and stressful time for both parents and children, especially when it comes to starting preschool, kindergarten or even college.
Parents often wonder whether their child will experience challenges being away from them for extended periods, and the honest answer is yes. Many children do exhibit some natural anxiety and nervousness during these times of transition. It’s important to understand the difference between anxiety that’s part of normal development and anxiety that’s excessive, so you can seek support for your child when needed to help ease these symptoms.
Separation anxiety is characterized by excessive fear of separation from a caregiver that substantially limits a child’s (and family’s) ability to engage in activities. It typically isn’t diagnosed in children younger than age 3, since hesitation around separation and reunions with caregivers is expected before that age. This pattern of excessive distress must be ongoing for about a month before it reaches a clinical level.
The good news is most separation fears are not excessive and can be remedied by using praise, social and emotional coaching strategies, and small low/no-cost rewards for successes. Before an anticipated separation – before is key, because some of these techniques are not as successful once a child is already upset during separation – plan a separation and reunion routine with your child.
A conversation and practice at home for this event may go something like this for a child who is around kindergarten age who you may anticipate a bit of hesitation around separation: “Michael, I know starting school is exciting but it can also be a little upsetting until you get used to the new routine. I know you will enjoy your day and be brave so you can have fun and learn with your friends and teachers. I’ll miss you too and look forward to seeing you after school to hear about your day! Let’s practice saying goodbye now, with a quick hug and wave after walking into school or your classroom. When I see you at the end of the day, we can have a special snack after school for doing a great job at drop-off time.”
This practice helps a child to anticipate and normalize their feelings when separation happens, and it also reinforces your belief they will be successful, as most children will be. Sometimes, your children may be more excited than you are to start these new chapters in their lives and you may be the one with a little hesitation to separate!
For more information on separation anxiety and related resources, visit our site.
Dr. Winkelspecht is a psychologist and clinical educator for Behavioral Health at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
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