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Separation Anxiety: Back to School Edition

Written by: Natalie Fuertes

It’s that time of year again - alarms are going off earlier than you’d like, you’re scrambling to get teeth brushed and breakfast made, and you’ve already put in what feels like a full day of work by the time you get into the office. That’s right, it’s “Back to School” in NYC! After a long summer of trying to keep my kids occupied, I was ready to “King Leonidas Kick” my kids into their school building this morning.

For the most part, our transition back to school was pretty smooth. With my daughter starting third grade and my son starting seventh grade, we’ve had lots of first days by now. But I remember a time when those first few weeks were a struggle, both for the kids and their Mom and Dad.

It’s such a weird feeling. You’re ready for some much needed space, but the thought of them standing in line in the cafeteria all alone, or needing help with something simple, like unzipping a stubborn sweater gives you a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach. You know that going to school (or taking an independent gymnastics class for the first time for that matter) is important and necessary for their independence and growth. But separation is tough.

Every child handles this new experience differently. Some will enter class comfortably, saying goodbye with ease. Others will cry and cling to your legs, begging you not to leave and breaking your heart into tiny pieces. And some may not show any signs of sadness until a few days into the year, once they realize that you’re pretty dedicated to this whole “drop off at class” business.

Here are some things that we’ve done that’s helped make the transition a bit easier for our kids:

Get the whole family into a “Back to School” routine. This starts with the night before. I struggle with severe anxiety, so leaving everything for the morning just results in me screaming at everyone (and that’s definitely not how you want your kids to start their day). The night before school, we’ll always follow the same routine: the kids put out their clothes and anything else they may need for the next day, we pack lunches, sign permission slips, and place bookbags by the door. The goal is to minimize the “morning madness”. The less we have to do in the morning, the less stressful our day is.

Let them bring something from home that reminds them of you. When my daughter was going into Pre-K, we laminated a few family photos that she could keep in her cubby at school. At nap time, her teacher would let her bring the photos with her while she laid down. Family photos, a small stuffed animal, or even a sticker on their hand (note: this one is good if they’re doing a gymnastics class) could help calm them. However, please check-in with your child’s teacher first to see what’s appropriate - you don’t want them to have anything that’ll be a distraction in class.

Shorter goodbyes are easier for everyone. I know. As a parent it’s the absolute worst feeling in the world to leave your child while they’re crying. But don’t linger because it just makes it worse for everyone. My husband and I created special handshakes that we do with our kids at drop-off (my son is 12 and he still gives us that handshake when he leaves for school). That handshake signaled that it was time to say goodbye. Do your special handshake, put a big smile on your face, and tell them you’ll see them soon. And then here comes the hard part: leave! Don’t linger with your face glued to the class window. I know you think that it helps for your child to see that you’re still there, but all you’re doing is reminding them what’s making them sad in the first place. It only makes it harder for your little one.

Trust your child’s teacher! They have your child’s best interest in mind and you are partners on a team. Remember, you picked their school or class because you felt like it was the best possible environment for your child. Their teachers will do everything possible to comfort your child when they’re sad or anxious.

Be on time for pickup. Even if you’re not the one picking up, explain the importance of this to whoever is. Five minutes feels like an eternity to a child. And when they see all of their friends being picked up and don't see a familiar face there for them, it creates more anxiety for your child during drop-off the next day. Being on time builds trust between you and your child and ensures they understand that Mom or Dad always comes back.

At the end of the day, even if there’s tears, remember that they’re going to be just fine. And that eventually you’ll be skipping to the coffee shop alone while you’re child is having fun in class!


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