Is going to school causing separation anxiety?
You look at your child’s tear-streaked face through the classroom window as they are scrabbling to get back to you.
You hear their pitiful cries, and all you want to do is go back inside give them a big hug and take them back home with you, but you know you have to leave them at school distressed and upset.
The first day of school should be an exciting time for children and parents – your child is growing up and ready to take on a new venture. However, the sorry picture described above is far too often the reality of starting school, and one which is difficult for parents and children alike.
It is normal for many children to feel anxious and upset when leaving their parents for the first time, but often the business of school and the excitement of making new friends means that this anxiety eases relatively quickly, usually within the first couple of weeks.
For some children, however, the anxiety associated with going to school can be much more intense and long-lasting, interfering with their integration into the school, and resulting in problems at home, such as poor sleep and increased number of tantrums.
This is known as separation anxiety disorder and is thought to affect approximately 4% of the population.
What are the symptoms
It is important to be able to identify the difference between normal child behaviour when separating from their parents for the first time, and indications of a more serious condition. Not treating a separation anxiety disorder quickly enough can lead to more long-term anxiety issues, while over-reacting to normal behaviour may cause you child to become more anxious than they initially felt.
There are several key symptoms which will help you to identify if your child is experiencing an anxiety disorder:
- The upset or crying at being separated from the parent does not ease relatively quickly, preventing the child from integrating into classroom activities or making friends.
- The child experiences intense fear that something bad will happen to themselves or to their parent or caregiver when they are apart.
- Fear of being separated permanently.
- Nightmares or unwillingness to go to sleep. The resulting tiredness from this can worsen the anxiety symptoms.
- Refusal to go to school.
- Complaints of physical illness, usually a sore tummy, headache or dizziness.
- Intense clinginess, even outwith of the school environment in the fear of being separated.
If many or all of the above symptoms are present for at least four weeks, then the chances are high that your child is suffering from separation anxiety disorder. However, all diagnoses should be made or confirmed by a medical professional.
What causes separation anxiety?
Anxiety at separating from the primary caregiver for the first time is normal and often eases quickly. However, there are several reasons or triggers for this to develop into a more serious condition. In some cases, identifying the cause or trigger can be a stepping stone for finding an effective treatment.
- Feeling insecure – starting school is a big change for children, and often the new faces and the new environment can cause the child to feel insecure
- Over-protective parents – children can feel very comfortable in an environment where their parent is constantly by their side, wrapping them in cotton wool and ensuring their safety. Stepping outside of that comfort zone can be very unsettling for children
- Stress or trauma – sometimes separation anxiety is a manifestation of stress from something else in your child’s life, such as moving house, parents divorcing, or trauma from being involved in a car accident, for example
- Hereditary – it is thought that separation anxiety disorder runs in families, so if either parent experienced the condition, the chances are higher that your child will too.
14 tips to reduce separation anxiety
Home remedies are the first step towards helping your child through their separation anxiety. There are several tips you can try to ease the transition to school.
1. Know and react to your child. If they are not prone to worrying or clinging, don’t make them worried by making a big deal out of going to school for the first time. However, if they prone to getting upset or stressed, talk through going to school with them and try to explain that it is a safe and normal event.
2. Allow your child time away from you, before starting school, such as spending a day with a grandparent or auntie. This will help your child to adjust to being apart from you.
3. Show your child around the school before they start (if this is an option). This allows your child to be familiar with the environment, and also meet the teacher beforehand.
4. If you know children who are going to be in the same class as your child at school, allow them to spend time and make friends with each other before the school term begins, so that your child can identify a familiar face on their first day.
5. Sort out their sleep schedule. Tiredness makes tantrums, clinginess and tears more likely, so make sure that your child is going to bed early enough and is used to getting up in time for school at least a week before term starts.
6. Many nurseries and primary schools start with half days to get the children used to being separated from their parents. Breaking your child in gently in this way helps make the transition to full school days much easier.
7. Make sure you arrive at school on time so that your child is not under extra pressure. Arriving at the same time as other children may help your child feel at ease.
8. Show that you trust the class teacher and that school is a safe environment. This is more likely to make your child feel safe and secure in the new environment.
9. Allow your child to take something from home with them, whether this be a soft toy, a piece of a blanket or just a special pen. This acts as a comfort blanket, making the school environment less alien for them.
10. Don’t hang around once you have said goodbye, as this only prolongs the separation and gives your child hope that you will not leave after all. Instead, establish a goodbye ritual so your child has a clear signal as to when you are going to leave, preventing them from looking around hopefully for you.
11. Don’t show your anxieties, as this will make your child more anxious too. Instead, look relaxed to reassure your child that being left at school for the day is a normal and safe occurrence. You can always begin to cry once you have left the school gates!
12. At pick-up time, ask about the fun things they have done today at school, and start talking about what there is to look forward to at school tomorrow to help your child realise that they do want to be at school.
13. Talk to your child about their problems and try to get them to identify why they don’t like separating. Understanding their fear, such as that you won’t come back, will help you to explain that their fear is unfounded.
14. Don’t give your child the option of backing out of school. The longer they are away, the harder it is to go back.
Are there herbs to help?
Many parents look for herbs to help with separation anxiety, as these are natural treatments which positively influence emotional wellbeing.
For example, a Bach Flower Remedy such as Child Essence, combines herbs including Cherry Plum, Chamomile and Chicory, to improve confidence and help the child adapt to changing circumstances such as going to school.