Back to school separation anxiety: Support your child
April 13, 2021
Anxiety disorders, including back to school separation anxiety, are one of the most common mental health problems identified in children.
Previously, we worked with clinical psychologist Dr. Anna Colton on tips for supporting your child’s anxiety with returning to school.
Now, we want to support you by equipping you with a few simple preparation steps that can support you with recognising symptoms of separation anxiety disorder to help your child with overcoming any worries they may have.
Find what you’re looking for in the links below:
- What is separation anxiety?
- What triggers separation anxiety?
- Symptoms of separation anxiety around school
- How to help a child with separation anxiety at school
- Parent’s back to school anxiety
- How Explore Learning can help
What is separation anxiety?
It’s normal for a child to have worries about returning to school after a break. Likewise, it’s natural for you to miss them after spending a longer than usual amount of time together.
These anxious feelings of imminent separation can lead to your child becoming distressed, acting differently or showing a reluctance to go to school. By understanding their anxiety and by knowing the right coping strategies for their transition back to school, you can reduce your child’s stress.
We spoke to an NHS England Educational Wellbeing Practitioner …
“Some children find it difficult to be apart from their parents or another carer. With separation anxiety this is often because of a fear that they will not see each other again. Sometimes the fear is that the child may be harmed in some way if their parent is not around, and other times it may be the opposite – the child may fear that their parent or carer may be harmed. This makes it difficult for these children to take part in activities and they may become withdrawn and ruminate.
What triggers separation anxiety?
Anxiety disorder in children can be common after a long period off from school, but can also be caused by:
Separation anxiety in children can come from the stress of a change in situation. Examples could include the loss of a loved one, feeling behind with schoolwork, or being worried about a presentation at school.
- Change in environment
Changes to your child’s surroundings, including moving school or home, stepping up to the next school year, or starting Secondary School can heighten their anxiety and cause the challenge of them not wanting to leave your side.
- Worried parents
Your child’s anxiety can sometimes be a manifestation of your own stress or nerves. Children can pick up on negativity and process it as their own. In essence, if your child notices that you’re stressed, they’re likely to become stressed themselves.
- Routine changes
It is normal for your child to experience feelings of worry after an extended break from school. Whether that be new obstacles presented after the long summer holidays, or through a long bout of illness, it can take a while for them to establish a usual routine again.
Symptoms of separation anxiety around school
- Refusal to go to school
- Fear that harm will happen to a loved one
- Reluctance to go to sleep
- Physical symptoms such as stomach pains or headaches
- Consistently following you around at home
- Fear of being left alone for short periods of time
How to help a child with separation anxiety at school
Strategies for separation anxiety at school
These long-term strategies can be used to help your child to understand themselves and their anxiety. The more confident a child can understand themselves, the more confidence they will feel in their ability to conquer more stressful times.
- Identify a safe place at school
Feelings of anxiety can lead to your child feeling lost, especially in a busy playground or hectic hallways. Speak to your child’s teacher to discover a safe place where your child can visit when their feelings of unease spike, so that they can practice deep breathing to calm themselves down. This may be their school library or a quiet corner in their classroom.
- Send notes or mementos for your child to read at school
Little lunchtime affirmations or notes reminding your child that you love them, believe in them, and that you hope that they have a great day can boost your child’s confidence in tackling their school day head-on, without your presence.
- Talk about worries
Talk with your child about their anxiety and acknowledge their feelings. Be careful not to dismiss their concerns by using phrases like, “you don’t need to worry about that”, rather try to identify if there is anything specific that’s making them feel anxious, and then consider if there are any changes that can be made to try and alleviate that concern.
Discover more positive ways to deal with life challenges with Si Martin, Director of charity Heads Above the Waves.
- Focus on the positives
Reflecting on the positive impact change can bring can result in your child having a clearer mind and can set them up for a successful return to school. See our 4-step plan to help shape a new beginning for you and your family.
- Prepare a bag the day before
Preparation is key and helps your child to overcome what may be the unknown. If they feel that they have all of the tools they need to have a great school day, such as a full pencil case and a ready-packed PE kit, it may reduce any form of anxiety they have.
- Make a timetable
Returning back to school after a long time off can increase stress with both the need to establish a routine and introducing homework once again.
“Don’t jump in at the deep end, gradually pace yourself by making a brief timetable and ticking off as you go.” – Max, tutor from Explore Learning Walton.
- Encourage a good night’s sleep
It can be hard for your child to dream peacefully if they’re feeling stressed. Reducing screen time prior to bed, reading a bedtime story together, and setting a routine bedtime hour can work perfectly as a wind-down routine.
“The most important thing is a consistent sleep pattern – not having enough sleep can be equivalent to leaving your brain in bed!” – Max, tutor from Explore Learning Walton.
- Identify a safe adult at school
By speaking to their teacher, you can work together to establish which school staff member is your child’s ‘safe adult’. This is someone they can trust and speak to, or even just sit next to when they’re feeling vulnerable.
- Allow brief contact with home
Whilst we don’t recommend this as a permanent daily fixture, during the first few days of your child’s school return, make both them and their teacher aware that you’re only one phone call away. This can work well as reassurance for any younger children starting in their Reception years.
- Reward and praise efforts
If your child is seriously suffering from separation anxiety, walking through their school corridors without you or even just that first step away from you is an achievement. To encourage your child to continue being brave, praise their efforts and show understanding when they express how difficult it is being away from you.
- Create a school gate goodbye routine
A reassuring send-off, whether it’s a comedic salute, a well-known family phrase or simply a cuddle and smile can not only establish a routine and signal your departure but can also give your child the confidence they need to survive their school day solo.
- Support their wellbeing
General wellbeing keep-up is important to promote a positive, healthy lifestyle. This not only includes ensuring your child eats the right nutritional foods and exercises regularly, but also means you should encourage them to have moments of fun. From having a kick about with their friends after school in the park to letting them explore their favourite books in your local library.
- Seek professional support
Depending on the severity and length of your child’s separation anxiety, it can be useful to not shy away from professional help. Cognitive behavioural therapy, play therapy, or counselling can treat separation anxiety disorder and can support your child in getting to the root of their problem by discovering what it is that’s causing their anxiety.
- Make time for relaxation and mindfulness
Activities like colouring, drawing, or going for a walk outside can help to calm your child. Family meditation is also a great way to create moments of serenity and can support your child in focussing their mind, leading to them being able to communicate better with you.
- Make a self-soothe box
Creating a trinket treasure box full of your child’s comforts, for them to take to school, can be a great coping mechanism for moments of distress. You can fill these boxes with things such as their favourite little teddy, a family photo, or perhaps more positive notes.
Parent’s back to school anxiety
A no longer anxious child and a happy home come from you also feeling calm. It can be easy to dive straight into supporting your child’s anxiety, without thinking or looking after yourself first. Your wellbeing is just as important, and although back to school can bring a wealth of stress for you also, there are a few things you can do to make that transition smooth – for both you and your child!
- Plan ahead
We know that separation anxiety can be felt by adults too. Mentally preparing yourself for your child’s return to school can support you in not feeling lost once they go back. Forecasting and looking ahead to upcoming challenges, such as introducing a homework or bedtime routine again, feeling prepared with school lunches and after-school clubs and setting reminders to remember to wash their school uniform, can help you to feel ready.
- Speak to someone
A problem shared is a problem halved. By speaking to our Explore experts, a friend, your child’s teacher or even seeking professional support such as a therapist, you can gain support by voicing your worries or concerns. You may even find that your friends or family are feeling a similar way!
- Research more about your child’s mental health
For those of you who are bookworms, or those who want more advice to support your child’s wellbeing, we recommend these books and websites:
- ‘Helping Your Child with Fears and Worries’ by Cathy Creswell & Lucy Willetts.
- ‘The Incredible Years’ by Carolyn Webster-Stratto.
- Nip it in the Bud encourages awareness about mental health disorders in young children.
- Young Minds empowers adults to be the best support they can be to the young people in their lives.
How Explore Learning can help
Our approach has always been to ensure learning is tailored to you and your family to give your child the confidence they need for back to school and beyond.
We’re proud that our incredible teams are always on hand to act as listening ears and to support you with any challenges your child is facing.
You can trust that our expert tutors are here to ease your child’s transition or next steps. Our vibrant tuition creates a safe space for your child to feel welcomed and supported for whichever turn life takes next.
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