The Jedi Goodbye: Helping Young Children with Separation Anxiety

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Beginning a new school year can be hard for little ones. Whether it is being dropped off the first day of preschool, starting kindergarten, going to a new school or getting a new teacher, young children can experience stress. A lot of times this stress presents itself as separation anxiety – not wanting the parent to leave the child.

Not only is separation anxiety hard for the child, I would argue that it’s equally as hard for the parents. Leaving your child when s/he is scared or crying is a terrible feeling that you keep with you throughout the day. I would like to share a few ideas for helping ease separation anxiety in young children. Read through these five suggestions and decide which ones might work for your child.

  • Get your game face on. Children have an amazing ability to not only read but absorb parents’ stress. If you are visibly anxious about your child’s new school then your child will be anxious too. Don’t spend too much time asking your child if they are ready or nervous or excited. Try to talk in a positive but low-key and matter-of-fact way about the new school year. Take some deep breaths on the way to school and then, after you drop your child off, feel free to lose it when you get back in the car.
  • Come up with a goodbye ritual. When my son was four he started a new preschool where he didn’t know any of the other students. We created the “Jedi Goodbye”; when my husband or I dropped him off at preschool we would do a secret light saber signal that was our goodbye ritual. It meant that “the force was with him” until we picked him up. He found this very reassuring. Also, try reading the book The Kissing Hand with your childit’s about a young raccoon that is a little nervous about going to school so his mother shares a secret ritual with him to help him while they are separated. The ritual ends up helping the mother raccoon as well!
  • Send something special with him/her. Whether it’s her favorite stuffed animal in her backpack or her worry rock that she can rub when she’s feeling anxious, often tactile aids help children relax and feel safe. Include a family picture in her lunchbox. It might seem like this would make children more homesick but it is actually comforting to them.
  • Be calm and consistent. When you drop your child off, give him your undivided attention, say a loving but firm goodbye, and tell him when you will see him again (use language he understands – for example, instead of saying “I will be back at 4:00” say “I will pick you up at the end of the day right after snack time”). Maintaining your calm and consistent routine will show your child that you have confidence in him.
  • Trust the teachers. Adults who devote their careers to teaching young children know how to help children with separation anxiety. If you are really worried about your child, schedule a time to check in with the teacher during the day to make sure everything is ok. You can also include the teacher in your goodbye ritual if you think that would help your child’s anxiety.

Separation Anxiety in young children is most likely a phase. With the help of parents and teachers, it will get better as the child adjusts to his/her new environment. If you feel like your child’s anxiety is not decreasing after a few weeks in his/her new environment, schedule some time to talk to their teacher about what might be going on. If you want outside help from a child psychologist specializing in anxiety in children, check with your insurance provider or you can use an internet search like Psychology Today.

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About Author

Dana Aderhold

Manager, Work Life Programs

Dana Aderhold is the Manager of the Work/Life and EAP Center. She also assists in the management of the Resources for Living Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and can help any employee or dependent better understand and use the EAP. She has both Bachelor and Master of Social Work degrees from NC State University and worked for several years with Wake County mental health programs.

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