From Camp to College: Tips for Helping Kids with Separation Anxiety

Parent Helping a Child with Separation Anxiety Before School

Leaving the family nest at different stages of life is challenging not only for children but for parents as well. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, separation anxiety is part of a normal development that occurs when a child is separated from their primary caregiver. Yet depending on your child’s age, separation anxiety can manifest in different ways. Although younger children often scream, stomp and cry, older children might withdraw or deny their feelings of anxiety. Some children might seem excessively worried, experience nightmares or develop headaches or other seemingly-unexplainable physical manifestations.

Normal separation anxiety eventually lessens as a child becomes used to leaving and they learn to trust that you will always return. Following a few simple tips can help ease separation anxiety in both older and younger children. Above all, ensure that your relationship with your child and your home environment are a safe place for your child to return to when they need extra love, soothing and attention.

Keep Your Promises

Leaving your younger child at school for the first time can be a scary and anxiety-provoking experience, but the same can be said for dropping your older child off at college. Regardless of their age, you can provide a safety net by keeping your word and being consistent. To develop confidence that they can handle the separation, your child needs to be able to rely on what you say and know that you are always going to return. Whether you’re dropping a younger child off at school or picking your teen up from a night out at the movies, being there when you say you will help your child feel safe and loved.

Create Rituals

Throughout history, people have relied on rituals to feel safe and connected to the world around them. Routines and rituals provide structure which helps reduce anxiety. Creating a goodbye ritual with your child reinforces your love and creates a sense of stability.

You could tuck a note into their backpack or coat that reminds them that you’ll be thinking about them and that you’ll see them soon. Goodbye rituals needn’t — and shouldn’t — be dramatic or lengthy: even a kiss and “love you” every day when your child walks out the door can suffice. Quick and simple is usually best, because longer goodbyes mean longer transitions, which create lingering feelings of anxiety.

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Talk About The Separation In Advance

According to psychologist Stephen Whiteside of the Mayo Clinic's Children Center, talking about the separation in advance can help to ease separation anxiety. Provide a sense of normalcy and empathize with their fears as much as possible. For example, if your child is nervous about starting school, explain what’s going to happen and who is going to pick them up at the end of the day. You might say, “I know you feel scared about leaving for school. I felt that way when I was your age. But you don’t have to worry because I’m going to be waiting for you in front of the school at the end of the day.”

For older children or teens (who might be leaving for college or heading out on their own for the first time), you can empathize with their fears and reassure them that everyone feels anxious at these times. Give your child a hug and let them know that they can always call you if needed.

Practice Goodbyes

Practice saying goodbye helps your child learn what it feels like to leave you. Try leaving your child with a family member or another trusted person for short amounts of time, and gradually increase the duration over time as your child becomes more accustomed to the separation. Leave without drama — explain that you are leaving, when you will return and then leave. The longer you drag things out, the more difficult the goodbye will become.

Relax, Be Firm and Focused

You might feel just as anxious as your child, but it’s important to stay as relaxed as possible. If you appear calm, you increase the likelihood that your child will stay calm, too. Don’t give in, no matter how much your child begs or cries. Reassure your child that everything will be fine. Setting limits helps your child adjust more quickly to the separation. When leaving, focus your entire attention on your child. Avoid becoming distracted by phone calls or texts or other concerns.

You’re Only Human

It may help to call to mind the famous quote from Deanne Repich that says, “When you’re feeling anxious, remember that you’re still you. You are not your anxiety.” No one is perfect, so don’t worry if you can’t put all these tips into practice all the time. As you try to be as consistent as possible over time, your child’s separation anxiety should decrease, and separations will become easier and more fluid for your entire family.

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