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Tip of the Week

Going Back to School Without Separation Anxiety


by Mary Jo Rapini, MEd, LPC

Backpacks, new clothes and sack lunches are buzzwords this time of year. But for parents, they can bring worry and concern about their little ones. Beginning school for children is a time of excitement and anxiety. Minor separation anxiety is normal. We witnessed normal child anxiety when a stranger would reach out to our 8-month-old babies. We witnessed it again until the child was about 2 when we dropped our child off somewhere new. Mild separation anxiety is a normal phase for both Mom and children. We experience it again when our 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/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 lives. They know that 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 nap time 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 emotions. 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's. 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 and promote your child's school friends 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.

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.


Helping teens and tweens

Minimize back-to-school anxiety involves being there emotionally and physically if they need to talk, but also allowing 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.

1. 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. 

2. Discuss transportation

Who will take whom where? Who is driving (and who will be with them)? Make sure you are clear about the route they will take.

3. Your child should be responsible

He/she should be able 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.

4. Know your child's classes

You should know 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. 

5. Talking to your child prior to the semester

Knowing 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 of 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. 

6. 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. 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:

1. As much as possible

Reassure your child that they will do well and that college is a wonderful experience. 

2. When you let 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 of how you feel about your child and leaving it somewhere where they can read it in private will be appreciated by them. 

3. Call your child or communicate with them

Do this in the same manner you did in high school, but let them set the pace. 

4. Plan a bi-monthly or monthly family meal

This allows your child to come home and reunite. For families who live far away, Facetime or Skyping are wonderful ways to reunite. 

5. Remind your child

When they are concerned or worried that you aren't near, and that you have every confidence they can handle the situation.

Separation is part of life

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 thing Mom and Dad gave them that pulled them through many anxious transitions was the fact 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 and more about Rapini at  Permission granted for use on
Tags: Anxiety, Character-Courage-Conscience, Character/Courage/Conscience, College, Education, Health, Mary Jo Rapini, MEd, LPC, School, Separation Anxiety, Stress, Teens
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