As over 63% of North Carolina Schools opt to go back to in-person learning after almost a year of online learning, there may be some mixed feelings. On one hand, you understand that your child needs the social and emotional relationships that are experienced at school and this will be one step towards normalcy (whatever that looks like now). Your child is probably super excited to get back to school to see their friends. Well, that is some children. Others may experience separation anxiety after months of being at home and with family.
Although most schools are only going in person 4 days a week, that is 4 days of, “Put your mask on”, “Sanitize your hands.” “You are too close, six feet!” And for children who already have anxiety, this can be very triggering. Parents can help to alleviate some of the anxiety by reassuring their children that it is okay to be away from them, but also encourage your children to be careful and prepare them to be flexible in case something happens and circumstances change.
Here is what you can do:
Validate their feelings
Let your child know that it is okay to feel afraid or worried about going back to school. Allow them space to express those fears in a healthy way, but do not feed too much into the fear, stay positive and stay calm! Let them know that you will miss them while they are at school, but you are so proud of them.
Set the tone
If you are visibly anxious, your child will be too. Even if you are nervous, try to stay calm and not let it show. Also, avoid asking questions like, “are you worried about going back to school?” This will make your child think that there is something to worry about. If your child has questions that you do not have the answers to, you can let them know you do not know the answer, but you will try to find the answer. Make a list of questions with your child, as they like knowing that you are going to manage the situation. You can work together to ask and answer questions to help keep calm.
Help them think positive
Some ways to help your child think positively when they are worried about separation is to let them know that you are going to be safe while they are at school. Maybe let them know what you are going to be doing. When they return home, ask them what they enjoyed about their day and what they are looking forward to. It has also been suggested that you give your child a transitional object or a “piece of home.” It can be something small that can fit in their pocket, that is not too distracting, but will still offer a sense of comfort.
The day school starts back is not the day to see if your child has separation anxiety. Try taking small steps, like your child playing in a separate room while you are in the other room. You could also try letting your child stay with a family member or other caregiver for a few hours.
Have a routine
Especially for younger children, having a routine in the days leading up to the start of school can be very important. If having a routine and practicing separation do not help and your child is still kicking and screaming at drop-off, you may want to make a plan with the child’s teacher or other student support staff at the school. Maybe your child would be more comfortable if their favorite teacher or staff member is waiting for them when they arrive at school.
Emphasize safety measures
Ensure your child knows that the school has been working very hard to ensure their safety while they are at school. Also, ensure that you explain that there is no guarantee that no one will get sick and that they must do their part and follow guidelines (Wear your mask, wash your hands, wait 6 ft/Watch your distance).
With the schools going to full capacity, there may be a “COVID Cluster” or positive cases at their school. Let your child know that, “Today, it is safe for you to go to school. If something changes and it becomes unsafe, then you will stay home.” Let your child know that everyone in the family is going to have to be flexible. Also, let them know that if they have any questions, they should come to you first so that you can ensure they have all the information that you can provide.
When to get help
If your child is unable to deal with the separation and is having severe emotional meltdowns when it is time for school more than 2 or 3 weeks, and they are not able to gather themselves or even stay at school for more than 3 or 4 weeks, you may need to seek help.
First, a professional will determine if your child is going through a normal stage of development or if there is a disorder. Your child may then be referred to a mental health professional, such as a psychologist or therapist who specializes in anxiety disorders. The mental health professional will give your child a psychological evaluation.
Treatment for separation anxiety usually involves you, as the parent, working side-by-side with your child on a plan to practice separating slowly. The therapist can also work with your child to address the reason why they are experiencing anxiety about going back to school, such as bullying, social anxiety, or a learning disability. For these kids, they may find more comfort at home. The therapist can also talk to your child about what they do not like about school.
Remember to be patient with your child and to let them know that this is a new experience for the whole family and you can work through it together.