Starting School Separation Anxiety – Coping With Tears

It’s getting to that time of year when lots of children are getting ready for their first day at kindergarten or school. Some kids sail through it and find it super exciting  and others can be full of worries and a fear of the unknown and of course there’s a whole mix of feelings between the two extremes. And as parents those emotional responses are often just as real and powerful for us too.

Lots of children can get separation anxiety when they're starting school or kindergarten or going through a year group transition. It's heartbreaking for us parents to see our children upset isn't it? As a teacher and a parent I discuss ways to cope with your child's tears and best support their needs at these difficult times.

Today I wanted to chat about separation anxiety and dealing with tears at goodbye time. There are lots of articles out there full of practical tips to help kids with starting school. But what if you’ve done the practical things needed such as equipping your child with the personal dressing and toileting skills they need and you’ve done all the recommended pre-school visits. You’ve got them used to wearing the uniform, you’ve met the teacher, you’ve got into the new morning routine weeks before hand, you’ve read all the books and are wearing the t-shirt of school readiness!

You are as darn school ready as a family can be and yet… when the big day arrives your child’s face crumples when it comes to saying goodbye and the tears start flowing?!

I’ve been there and done that and know that as a parent I don’t think there’s much worse than having to leave your distressed child. I’ve also been a teacher and the one left with five sobbing children and twenty others that are all ready to get started with their day and believe me that’s tough too!

What Not To Say When Dealing With Separation Anxiety

I was prompted to write this article because when faced with a crying child at the classroom door in both teacher and parent roles I’ve so often heard well meaning parents tell their child “Don’t be silly”, “Stop crying“, “Don’t be daft“, “There’s nothing to cry about“, “Big boys don’t cry” and the such like. It breaks my heart to hear these phrases it really does!

The emotions the child is feeling aren’t silly, or daft, they are real, important and need to be addressed. Big boys and girls do and should be allowed to cry and these little poppets have something to cry about right now, they are saying goodbye to you and you are their world, you are their everything. They have a right to feel unsure and sad!

If our children are sad and tearful at saying goodbye time then firstly we should be inwardly rejoicing that they can express those feelings and aren’t bottling them up, how harmful would that be?

Secondly we need to be acknowledging those sad feelings about starting school. Don’t fall into the trap of asking them what’s wrong,  the chances are they are too emotional to say and they may not even have the language or understand enough of their emotions to express what they are feeling. Instead tell them what you can see and understand. Tell them “I can see that you are feeling sad“. Explain to them, “I can tell that you are upset at having to say goodbye now.” Why not explain that you will miss them too? Simple phrases like these show a child that their feelings matter, that their feelings have been noticed and that their feelings are important. Only once they feel heard can we hope to move them forward positively.

Acknowledging A Child’s Separation Anxiety And Equipping Them To Move Forward

Once a child’s emotions have been acknowledged we can help them to cope with the situation.  Helping a child to see the time away from you as a distinct section of time with a beginning, middle and end can be really beneficial and make the whole idea of starting school more manageable. Remind them of two or three things that are going to happen throughout the day such as painting in the morning, then lunch and then a story before they come home.  Young children can’t tell the time from the classroom clock so pointers like this can help them cope throughout the day too.

Be really positive about their school day and tell them how excited you are to be picking them up later and to be able to hear about all the wonderful things they have done.

Help them feel secure that you will return and collect them from school by telling them where you will be waiting for them in the playground. Make a plan with them about what you will do after their time at school. It doesn’t have to be anything special, it’s value isn’t in its uniqueness, its value is in being something that they will be doing with you. It could be a trip to the park, or that you’ll sit and do a jigsaw puzzle together or read the next chapter of the story book. Reminding them of what it is you’re going to be doing together later gives them something distinct to look forward to and a clear marker of their time at school coming to an end. A conversation like this puts their school day into a time context and helps them see it as just a small segment of the day.

Lots of children like to have a special comfort toy from home with them and if your school allows this then great. Kiss the toy goodbye too and reassure special teddy that you’ll see him later and that your child will look after him and they’ll have a fabulous day together and teddy can help a child feel supported when you’re not there.

If your school or kindergarten doesn’t allow a comfort toy from home you might want to consider sewing a little piece of ribbon or soft fabric like velvet into a pocket. Give it a special name like “Mommas love ribbon” and your child can then touch it and hold it to be close to you throughout the day when they need that extra bit of comfort.

Parents Feel Separation Anxiety Too – Saying Goodbye Is Tough!

I know this sounds like a lot to be talking through with your child when they are dealing with separation anxiety but it really needn’t, nor should you want it to, take more than a couple of minutes. A lingering parent that spends too long and won’t bring the goodbye to an end can easily escalate a child’s anxiety.

Remember to look after your self at this time too. If your child is still tearful when you say goodbye don’t feel you have to battle with the inevitable emotional response you have to this alone. Any good school or kindergarten will let you wait somewhere out of sight of your child or telephone the school a few minutes later to check that your child has settled and is no longer sad. Most children will settle happily within a minute or two.

Let’s Consider The Child’s Feelings Today and Every Day

As a teacher talking now I’d love every parent to acknowledge their child’s feelings when they say goodbye, it may be that they have a child that hops, skips and dances into the classroom or it may be that they have a child that is anxious to say goodbye. What ever your child is feeling it is hugely beneficial to the child for them to know that their feelings are noticed and valued and it makes it a lot easier for the teacher to settle those children too.

For a child with separation anxiety I’m not saying that these steps will stop the child crying but it will help to equip the child with the ability to work through and cope with their emotions. Being able to manage our feelings is a crucial life skill so let’s not sweep them under the carpet, let’s not call them “silly”, let’s celebrate all of our children’s emotions and strive to help them manage them in a positive and supporting way.

Looking for more parenting tips? Check out our parenting section for more interesting articles.

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Lots of children can get separation anxiety when they're starting school or kindergarten or going through a year group transition. It's heartbreaking for us parents to see our children upset isn't it? As a teacher and a parent I discuss ways to cope with your child's tears and best support their needs at these difficult times.

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  1. says

    Absolutely 100% agree! Love this post and will be sharing on FB and including in my Kindergarten readiness post later this week. I heard those words, “Stop crying!” coming from a preschool teacher at the start of last year, and decided to find another preschool for my son as a result. In my opinion, we can’t ignore the importance of teaching kids that it’s okay to express their feelings. These are fundamental messages that will keep them emotionally healthy and resilient their lives through. Best, Sue


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