Back to school separation anxiety
Anxiety disorders, including back to school separation anxiety, are one of the most common mental health problems identified in children.
Separation anxiety affects approximately 4.1% of children, highlighting the importance of knowing how to help a child with separation anxiety at school.
We want to support you by giving you a few simple preparation steps that can help you. Let's take a look at the symptoms of back to school separation anxiety so you can help your child feel confident.
What is school separation anxiety?
It’s normal for you and your child to have worries about returning to school after the long break.
These anxious feelings of imminent separation can lead to your child:
showing a reluctance to go to school
By understanding their school separation anxiety and 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 This makes it difficult for these children to take part in activities and they may become withdrawn and ruminate.
Anxiety problems are the most common form of emotional and behavioural problems experienced by young people, and separation anxiety can affect up to one in five children.”
What triggers school 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 stressful situations and changes. Examples could include
the loss of a loved one
feeling behind with schoolwork
being worried about a presentation at school
Change in environment
Changes to your child’s surroundings, including
moving school or home
These changes all heighten their anxiety and cause the challenge of them not wanting to leave your side.
Separation anxiety in a children can sometimes be triggered by your own stress or nerves. Your 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.
It's 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 school separation anxiety
It's important to recognise the signs of separation anxiety in children. That way you can think of strategies to help them stay calm before they start to experience school separation anxiety too intensely.
Here are some symptoms of separation anxiety to look out for:
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 understand themselves and their anxiety. The more a child can understand themselves, the more resilient they will become.
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 they can visit when their feelings of unease spike, so that they can practise 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
Leave them little lunchtime notes to remind them that you love them. This will boost their confidence so they can tackle their school day head-on without you.
Talk about worries
Talk with your child about their anxiety and acknowledge their feelings. Avoid phrases like, "you don't ned to worry about that," as they may feel like you're dismissing their concerns. Instead 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.
What age does separation anxiety start?
Separation anxiety in children can start from as early as 6 months and can usually last until they’re around 3 years old, however, it can stick with children until much older. Knowing how to help a child with separation anxiety at school is really important.
Top tutor tips for school separation anxiety: How to establish a routine again
Here are some top tips from one of our expert tutors on how to start a back to school routine again.
Focus on the positives
Help your child reflect on the positives to clear their mind for a successful return to school.
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 their anxiety.
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. A good routine can alleviate separation anxiety in children, as they know what to expect from their day.
“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 before 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 – this acknowledgement can help a child with separation anxiety at school.
Create a school gate goodbye routine
Some children experience separation anxiety at school drop-off. Give your child confidence with a reassuring send-off, whether it's a comedic salute, a well-known family phrase or simply a cuddle and smile. This will help them establish a routine and feel comfortable when it's time for you to go.
Support their wellbeing
Supporting their general wellbeing will promote a positive, healthy lifestyle.
This includes ensuring your child:
eats the right nutritional foods
is encouraged to have fun after school, especially with friends
develops some good hobbies like reading books from the local library
Seek professional support
If your child's separation anxiety is severe, don't 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.
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. For the curious young minds, consider introducing them to mental health activities for children.
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
It's also important to practise your own self-care routine. It can be easy to start looking for solutions and methods on how to help a child with separation anxiety at school but you should take some time to look after yourself first.
Your wellbeing is just as important, and although back to school can bring a wealth of stress there are a few things you can do to make that transition smooth – for both you and your child!
If you’re feeling overwhelmed or experiencing parental stress, we encourage you to learn more about coping skills for stressed parents.
While separation anxiety in children is more common, we know that it can be felt by adults too. Mentally preparing yourself for your child’s return to school can help you feel less lost once they go back.
Looking ahead to upcoming challenges can help you feel ready. These could include:
introducing a homework or bedtime routine again
feeling prepared with school lunches and after-school clubs
setting reminders to remember to wash their school uniform
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
Understanding children’s mental health is crucial when it comes to helping a child with back to school separation anxiety. For those of you who are bookworms or 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.
For parents keen on learning more about children’s mental health, we encourage you to learn more about Children’s Mental Health Week.
How Explore Learning can help with school separation anxiety
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 tuition centres and online tuition create a safe space for your child to feel welcomed and supported for whichever turn life takes next.
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