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New classes. New classmates and teachers. New schools. They come with the end of every summer, and for some children, they bring new opportunities to experience the weird discomfort of leaving their caregivers behind to begin something strange and unknown.
Plenty of kids jump into new settings with squealing enthusiasm, but parents shouldn’t be surprised to find themselves prying open tiny fingers desperately clutching their pant leg now and again. This behavior could be caused by a number of triggers, from a simple bad day to a remembered trauma, but is often traced back to separation anxiety.
While a range of factors could set off an episode of separation anxiety, the causes can be boiled down to a primitive fear that the child won’t survive without their parent or caregiver. Cue the screaming.
While these hysterics are typically brief, they can be unpleasant, delivered with all the howling, collapsing, and finger-sucking they can throw at us. They’ll flail against the temporary caregiver, writhing from their embrace to make a mad dive for the closing classroom door, and press their snotty nose against the window.
Most prevalent between 8 to 18 months, separation anxiety can bubble to the surface unexpectedly in children of all ages, and can even affect adults. A typically stalwart child might be diminished by an illness, bummed about a lost barrette, or otherwise troubled to the point of disintegrating into a wet heap of tears and hair at the idea of being left somewhere, even a familiar place, by their parents.
Similarly, these fits could be ignited by change. When they move from junior to senior preschool, or kindergarten to first grade. When a new teacher joins the class. After a key friend has moved on. More profound changes are even more likely to cause anxiety: moving to a new community and school, emerging from a divorce, the death of a loved one.
Debbie Kallaher, executive director of Calvary Place Childcare Center and an early childhood development specialist with three decades of experience in the trenches, says the best approach for dealing with separation anxiety might not be what parents want to hear.
“The longer the parent stays in the situation, the worse it is,” says Kallaher. “The best thing to do is make a routine out of saying goodbye and that you love them and you hope they learn a lot, giving them a kiss and making your exit.”
The urge to see your child through the mania is a strong one, but parents’ lingering presence can keep the child locked in anxiety.
“Stand out of sight and listen if you need to hear it resolved, but parents need to know sticking around compounds the trouble,” says Kallaher. She offers other tips that will help soften the blow of separation for the kids — and parents.
- Teachers have training in dealing with this. Let the experts do their thing and trust them. The same goes for grandmothers, uncles, family friends, and babysitters.
- Divert their attention before the emotions erupt. If your child is prone to outbursts, stay a step ahead with distractions. Make a big deal of the teacher’s cool new shirt. Point out how the friends are playing a super fun game.
- Involve kids in your exit. Have your child take some agency in the split, showing you to the door, or even pushing you through it. They’ll own the act, and be proud rather than sad.