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Back to School: Overcoming Separation Anxiety

Back to School: Overcoming Separation Anxiety

Written by Kelsie Goller, MA, LPC-S, RPT

Clinical Director, KPS

By this time, most of the schools and preschools in Longview and the surrounding areas have started back up, and parents may be faced with a new (or a familiar) challenge: separation anxiety. Children can have separation anxiety at many intensities at various ages, and actually separation anxiety is a normal part of childhood development. Babies start to develop object permanence as early as 4-5 months old. Object permanence is the understanding that people and objects continue to exist even when the baby can no longer see them. Many parents notice that babies start to develop healthy separation anxiety around the 9 month old mark, and this is a natural progression of developing object permanence- since the child now understands that mom and dad still exist even when they no longer see them, they will express their unhappiness that mom and dad are gone and attempt to “get them back” again through crying and protesting. Some babies don’t exhibit separation anxiety at 9 months, but develop it later around 15-18 months old.

In Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, the first two years of a child’s life are the sensorimotor stage, the stage in which the child is continually discovering things about themselves and their environment through their senses. This is also a time of explosive brain development. Children start to understand cause and effect relationships (“If I drop the ball, it falls to the ground”), object permanence (“My ducky still exists behind the blanket and if I move the blanket I will see it again”), and finally symbolic thought (the foundation of visualization and imaginary play) Meanwhile, in psychosocial development, Erik Erikson’s first stage from birth to 18 months is developing the sense of basic trust or mistrust, depending on whether baby’s needs are met by a caregiver who is attentive, reassuring, and safe. When babies are met with consistent, caring, attentive responses to their needs, they develop healthy attachments to their caregivers, which may also make them more wary of strangers. All of these variables- the searching for parents because object permanence has developed, the concern about getting basic needs met in the psychosocial struggle between basic trust vs. basic mistrust, and the healthy attachment to caregivers who are reliable and safe- means that babies between 9 and 36 months naturally protest when separated from parents. This is normal and also not a matter for concern! When left with safe, reliable caregivers, if they have a healthy attachment style and are learning that their environment is safe, they will generally be able to calm down again after they have been left, with the temporary caregiver providing co-regulation. There are many basic tips for leaving children at this age: good-bye rituals that are brief and consistent, giving your full attention and affection during this brief good-bye, letting the child know when you will be back, and maintaining a calm demeanor during the good-bye.

While separation anxiety is a normal part of childhood development, it can also develop into separation anxiety disorder. Separation anxiety disorder is an unusually strong (for the developmental age) fear or anxiety about being separated from attachment figures, with other associated symptoms: fears that harm or death will come to the attachment figure, nightmares about separation, difficulty sleeping without the attachment figure, physical complaints when approaching separations (stomach aches or vomiting), or fears of being kidnapped/lost and therefore separated from the attachment figure. Of course, all of these symptoms can make going back to school a terrifying time for a child dealing with separation anxiety. Parents and caregivers can implement similar techniques as used when separating from younger children (good-bye rituals, maintaining a calm demeanor, reminding the child when you will be reunited with them, and giving the child your undivided attention in these moments.) Parents can also provide emotional space for their child to talk with them about their fears. Other activities that may help include:

  • Read The Invisible String together. Talk about how the invisible string of love connects you and your child when you are apart, and draw pictures of you and your child in your respective locations with an invisible string connecting you.

  • For younger children, read The Kissing Hand and use the kissing hand as part of your good-bye ritual with them.

  • For elementary aged children, get the book What To Do When You Don’t Want to Be Apart: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Separation Anxiety (part of the well-known What To Do Guides for Kids Series) and work through the workbook with your child.

  • Find a transitional object that your child can keep with them after the good-bye (stuffed animal, smooth rock in their pocket that you paint together, etc.) Discuss with the teacher what types of transitional objects are acceptable for the classroom setting.

  • Write a note of encouragement for your child for them to carry in their pocket and read when they need it.

  • Make I Love You bracelets with alphabet letters with your child and wear them when you will be apart.

If your child experiences significant distress that is interfering with their social or academic life, consider bringing them to meet with a mental health professional for more help in dealing with the fear and anxiety. Children learn and play best when they feel safe, so separation anxiety should be addressed to allow them to thrive to their full capacity.

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