School is starting in many areas in the next few weeks. Most kids are excited about the beginning of school. A few kindergarten kids and sometimes even older children will exhibit symptoms of separation anxiety. The main sign of this disorder is extreme anxiety and fear when separated from a caregiver. The symptoms of this disorder vary from child to child but can include:

  • getting upset while getting ready to leave for school
  • worrying that something bad will happen to the caregiver
  • worrying about getting lost or kidnapped when apart
  • refusal to get on the bus or out of the car
  • tantrums and screaming when pushed to leave
  • problems with going to sleep
  • nightmares
  • refusing to sleep in the child’s own bed
  • physical complaints when facing separation (stomach aches, headaches, even vomiting)

Separation anxiety can become a very serious problem. Concerned parents hate to see their children suffer. Parents understandably often respond to the first signs of separation anxiety with love and reassurance. When that doesn’t stop the fear, they try firmness, and sometimes nothing seems to work. Separation anxiety can appear in perfectly well adjusted children. A variety of factors likely cause it; some kids seem to be born anxious; sometimes it appears due to changes in the kid’s environment (e.g., moving, divorce, etc.); other times it just pops up seemingly out of nowhere.

My twins were sad and cried a little when I left them at home with a babysitter, but loved preschool and kindergarten. They’d pile out of the car and run full speed into school. But my younger son had separation anxiety when I dropped him off at daycare. I started each day feeling horrible-leaving him as he screamed for me. I knew that I just had to turn the corner and seconds later he’d be off playing with the other kids, but the guilt I felt was more than a little uncomfortable. By the time he was in preschool, the transition was smooth and now he travels all over the world, comfortable in almost any setting.

But not every child outgrows separation anxiety without some treatment. Usually, the school counselor or teacher will have some helpful hints. Some children will benefit from brief psychotherapy (which should involve the parent or caregiver).

Many of the same principles that guide treatment for any anxiety disorder are true for separation anxiety.

1. Make sure that the child is safe (that he is being adequately supervised and not bullied).
2. Make the transition quickly. Don’t have long conversations.
3. Don’t provide reassurance. That only delays the separation and easily increases the amount of anxiety.
4. Decide what the rules are and stick to them (like sleeping in child’s own bed, going to school without a tantrum).
5. Never let a child “win” the battle and stay at home.
6. If the child says that she is too sick to go to school, keep her in bed without her favorite games, toys, or television (so that she can get better).
7. If the problem is severe, get help.

Good luck and happy school days.