Psychotherapist Mary Jo Rapini offers parents tips for back-to-school preparation including how to deal with separation anxiety and back-to-school stress.
Beginning school for children is a time of excitement and anxiety, and for parents it can bring worry and concern about their little one. Minor separation anxiety is normal in children. Parents witness normal child anxiety when a stranger reaches to their 8-month-old babies. They continue to witness it until the child is about 2 when he or she is dropped off somewhere new. It’s also common for parents and children to experience mild separation anxiety. It’s experienced when kids go off to college.
In young children, there are several factors that influence separation anxiety including a child's temperament, as well as how well he or she reunites with parents and teachers. How the parent responds is very important, because a parent's behavior is what many children react to.
How a parent can help a young child minimize separation anxiety:
Develop a routine. Children feel safe when they can count on what will happen. A routine that is the same each day helps children predict events and adds structure to their life. They know when mommy or daddy leave, they will come back.
Don't be late. Talk to your child for several days preparing them for their day. When you leave them, tell them after naptime or whatever the schedule is, I will be there. Then be sure you are there. If for some reason you have a conflict and cannot pick them up, tell them who will and what they can expect. This helps your child feel secure and in control.
Stay positive. If you act worried, concerned or weepy, your child will follow your emotion. Be upbeat about the activities and meeting new friends. Whatever the child enjoys, make sure you promote that activity as much as you can.
Follow the instructor's rules. Your child will form a relationship with their teacher and whatever the teacher says is your child's truth. You may know more about a topic than your child's teacher, but they will correct you if your story doesn't match their teacher. If your child's teacher has a rule, respect it as much as possible at home as well. An example is not allowing certain words to be said. No matter what the word is, if it is negative at school, do not say the word at home.
Know your child's school friends and encourage them to meet outside of school. Helping your child build friendships will help ease their school anxiety. If you know someone in the class, inviting that child over with their parent prior to school will help your child adjust more easily.
Develop a bedtime routine at least two weeks prior to the school year beginning. This will help your child feel more rested.
Let your child help you pack their snack, lunch, and backpack for school with necessary items for the first day of school. This list is usually sent to parents prior to the first day of school.
Talk about transitions. When your child is making a new transition, such as beginning school or starting a new grade in school, talking about it, reading stories about school, and watching cartoons about the subject matter help alleviate worry and fear about the unknown. A parent's goal should be to help their child feel confident that they will be well cared for.
Being there emotionally and physically for teens and tweens helps minimize back to school anxiety, it’s equally important to allow them time to explore healthy coping mechanisms on their own. Parents who structure a healthy school environment for their child are mentoring the importance of education in their family. Below are suggestions that can also help.
- Prior to school have a schedule of when phones and computers will be turned off for the night. Kids need a structured routine and bedtime just as much as small children do.
- Discuss transportation. Who is driving (and who will be with them). Make sure you are clear about the route they will take.
- Your teen should be responsible enough to do their own laundry, clean their own room and have their clothes ready for school each day. Doing too much for your child, or taking care of what they are capable of doing on their own is a no-no.
- Know your child's classes and which teacher your child has for each class. Attending the open house night prior to classes beginning is very helpful for children and their parents.
- Talking to your child prior to the semester about which classes may require additional tutoring is helpful. Your child can plan their after school activities easier and with less stress if they know you are supportive with them getting additional help if they need it. Anxiety is the worry of what will happen prior to it ever happening. The more parents can help alleviate the worry, the better.
- Reassurance goes a long way! Kids need to know you are on their team, with things they worry about.
As your child heads off to college you may think your days of separation anxiety are over, but just the opposite is true. When kids leave home, it's a transition for the child as well as the parents. Every parent feels somewhat emotional when they drive away and leave their child behind to begin a new life on campus. Whether you have looked forward to this day or dreaded it, it will happen, and preparing your child as well as yourself will minimize your anxiety. These few suggestions will help:
- Reassure your child as much as possible that they will do well and that college is a wonderful experience.
- When you drop your child off on campus this is not the time to insist on hugging, kissing or making a scene. Many kids aren't comfortable with public displays of affection, so writing a letter explaining how you feel about your child and leaving it somewhere where they can read it in private will be appreciated by them.
- Call your child or communicate with them in the same manner you did in high school, but let them set the pace.
- Plan a bi-monthly or monthly family meal where your child will come home and reunite. For families who live far away FaceTime or Skype are wonderful ways to reunite.
- Remind your child that you're near when they are concerned or worried, and that you have every confidence they can handle the situation.
Separation is part of life, and learning how to separate from the ones you love most is a lifetime lesson. If your child has difficulty, it will usually pass, but when in doubt, speaking to a counselor is always helpful. Reminding your child that mistakes are learning tools, and that we all make them, helps lessen their anxiety when they are trying to be perfect in their new surroundings. Most children I talk with tell me the one source of comfort their parents gave them that pulled them through many anxious transitions was knowing that they could always go home. Kids need to know their family will always be there no matter where home (geographically) is.
Mary Jo Rapini, MEd, LPC, is a licensed psychotherapist and co-author with Janine J. Sherman, of Start Talking: A Girl's Guide for You and Your Mom About Health, Sex or Whatever. Read more about the book at StartTalkingBook.com and more about Rapini at maryjorapini.com.