Separation anxiety: Strategies for coping

Children will likely struggle to say good-bye to parents and caregivers for the first time; explore some strategies to help them cope.

With back to school right around the corner, parents and children are no doubt feeling a range of emotions. It can be very difficult for children and parents to part ways especially those first few days of school. Separation anxiety is a common experience that can start and reoccur anytime during the early childhood years.

Separation anxiety is not only normal, but is one of your child’s first opportunities to deal with fear and coping; it’s a healthy learning experience. It can start on the first day of school or any time after that. Some parents and children slide through the first few weeks of school anxiety-free just to find that their children suddenly doesn’t want to leave them in October. Some children start preschool at age 2 or 3 and become clingy the following year. It’s important to remember that all children are unique and will have varying experiences.

Some kids, however, experience separation anxiety that doesn’t go away, even with a parent’s best efforts. These children experience a continuation or reoccurrence of intense separation anxiety during their elementary-school years or beyond. If separation anxiety is excessive enough to interfere with normal activities such as school and friendships, and lasts for months rather than days, it may be a sign of a larger problem, and you should consult with your child’s physician.

Below are a few strategies from the Mayo Clinic that may ease some anxiety:

  • Practice goodbyes. Leave your child with a trusted caregiver for short periods of time. Eventually your child will learn that he or she can count on you to return.
  • Time your departure carefully. Your child may be more likely to have a fit when you leave if he or she is tired, hungry or restless. If you can, leave when your child is fed and rested.
  • Give your child something to look forward to. Discuss with your child something fun that will happen while you're gone.
  • Don't prolong your goodbye. If you're leaving your child at home or in another familiar environment, give your child a gentle goodbye — then go. Encourage your child's caregiver to distract your child with a favorite toy or engage your child in a new activity right away. If you're leaving your child in a new environment, you might play with your child for a few minutes to ease the transition. When you leave, remind your child that you'll be back. Be specific about when you'll return, such as "after lunch" or "after your nap."
  • Leave a reminder. Offer a special blanket, stuffed animal or other comforting object for your child to hold while you're gone.
  • Keep the tears in perspective. Your child's tears are an attempt to keep you from leaving. When you're gone, the tears aren't likely to last long — especially once your child is engaged in a new activity.

Remember, separation anxiety is a rite of passage for infants and toddlers. Be patient as your child learns that it's okay to spend time away from you.

For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

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