Separation Anxiety: How to Handle First Day Fears
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When children are getting ready for their first day of kindergarten, most of them are pretty excited about finally being a "big kid" who gets to go to "big school". At the same time, their parents are preoccupied by picturing the worst-case scenario: screaming, terrified children who will be traumatized forever by the forced separation. Note that in this case, as in many parenting situations, it is the child who is originally looking forward to the new experience, and the parent who suffers the anxiety, which is then transferred to the child.
The good news is that kindergarten does not have to be a bad experience for anyone. Children pick up cues about how to act from you. If you are positive, calm, and optimistic about your child going to kindergarten, then your child will be just fine. To minimize separation anxiety, keep some of the following ideas in mind:
- Carefully check out the school before you decide to send your child there. Make sure that it is an environment where you know your child will feel comfortable. If you feel good about the school, then your confidence will be apparent to your child.
- Make kindergarten something to really look forward to. Prepare for the big day a few weeks ahead of time. Post a calendar, and mark off the days as if you are excited about an upcoming holiday or birthday. Pick out a new lunch or backpack together and save it for the big day. Plan a special, celebratory breakfast for the first morning.
- Find out who will be in your child’s class, and arrange to play with some of the children a few times before school starts. After school begins, plan get-togethers with children from the class after school and on the weekends.
- We are all much less likely to be anxious if we know what to expect. Take your child to visit the school a few times before the first day. Arrange to meet the teacher. Look around the classroom and the school so that your child knows where the bathroom is, where their belongings will go, what the playground looks like, etc. Spend some time together playing on the playground and walking around the school. Keep telling your child how exciting and wonderful this experience will be.
- Ask your child if she has any questions about school. Answer them honestly, and if you don’t know, find out the answer. If your child is worried about making friends or talking to the teacher, practice some easy phrases, such as, “Can I play with you?” and “Can I go to the bathroom?”
- Give your child many chances to talk about how he is feeling about going to school. Do not assume he is scared, or plant the idea in his head by asking, “Are you worried about going to school?” However, if you are sensing that he is apprehensive, but can’t communicate that feeling, say, “Are you a little unsure about what kindergarten is going to be like?” Try to figure out specifically what the concern is. Let him know that whatever he is feeling is okay and normal. Share a time when you went into a new situation, how you felt at the beginning, and how it ended up okay in the end.
- If your child says that he doesn’t want to go because he will miss you, respond by saying, “I will miss you, too, but I’m really excited about everything you will get to do in school. I can’t wait to hear all about it when you come home.”
- When you get to school, keep it short, and stay calm. Hug your child, and say, “I love you. I know you’ll have a great day. I’ll pick you up at 1:00. Good-bye.” Smile and walk away. It is helpful to tell your child ahead of time what you will do and say that morning, so she is prepared.
- Do not hesitate when you leave. Be prepared for the fact that your child might cry and be upset, but have confidence that the teachers know how to handle the situation. The more you drag out the good-bye, the more painful it will be, and the longer it will take your child to get adjusted to leaving you. If you run back the minute your child starts to cry, you are teaching him that crying will prevent you from leaving, and he will do it every morning.
- Children will pick up on your slightest bit of anxiety and will wonder why you are concerned. It is incredibly important to prepare yourself, in addition to preparing your child. Practice what you will say to your child and how you will stay calm. If you feel like you are going to cry, do your best to hold it together until you are out of your child’s sight.
- Make it your absolute first priority to pick up your child at exactly the time that you said that you would. It will be easier to get her to school the next day if she trusts that you will be there on time to pick her up. Ask her questions about her day, focusing on the positive. Tell her how proud you are of her and how she must be excited to go back tomorrow.
- Prepare yourself for a few days, or even weeks, of difficult mornings and separations. Remind yourself to be consistent, be calm, and be optimistic. If you can solider through a few rough days, your child will get used to the routine and future separations will be much easier.
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