Parenting with a PhD: Separation Anxiety and Your Kindergartener

Your new kindergartener is facing her first year of formal schooling with a mix of excitement and dread. As are you. In fact, he may cycle through the highs and lows 50 times in the span of one minute: looking forward to being in “big boy school,” hoping for a nice teacher, feeling terrified of getting lost, anticipating that awesome new playground, being worried that he won’t know anyone, thinking about the classroom iPads he saw at orientation, freaking out over what to do if his shoe comes untied, etc. It’s all the feelings. One of the biggest issues your Little (but not-so-little anymore…) might be dealing with is anxiety about separating from you for the whole school day. This is especially likely for kids who didn’t attend preschool or who went part-time. You may have even noticed a little separation anxiety in yourself. Here are some tips for reducing the worry and priming everyone to have a great kindergarten experience:

  1. Go to all the visits. Whatever orientations/registrations/activities your school holds for incoming kiddos, make a point to go. The more familiar your child feels in the physical space and among his future teachers, administrators, and classmates, the more comfortable he’ll feel on the big day.
  2.  Make a point to meet the other parents and kids (I know this can be hard and awkward but it really helps). Introduce yourself and your child to other families at orientation and keep a list of the kids you met handy so you can remind your child the day before school starts of whom she already “knows.”
  3. Ask your child what he might like to take to school the first few days to remind him of home or to help him feel more secure like a family picture or a favorite lovey. The item can stay safely tucked away in his bag for use in case of emergencies and no one will know it’s there. Another idea is to send something of yours that has some degree of value (but, like, a low degree of value because, seriously, he might lose it) to help reassure him that you really will be reunited at the end of the day. You may take this fact for granted because OF COURSE he’ll come home at the end of the day but kids with separation anxiety often have the fear that you won’t come back. Giving them something important to you to hold helps allay that fear. Consider leaving with your child a key on a keychain that can easily be replaced and that doesn’t open anything crucial. Kids think keys are awfully important.
  4. Talk in detail the day before about what the schedule will look like: 1) Who will take her – Mom? Dad? Grandma? 2) Where will she be dropped off – Outside? In the classroom? 3) What is the general schedule of the day? Assure her she’ll have playtime and will get lunch. Consider packing lunch together so she knows what’s in the box and will look forward to eating it. Slipping in a sweet note when she isn’t looking would be a comforting touch, too. 4) Talk about who will pick her up and where. Of course, her teacher will bring her to the pick-up spot but it’s helpful for your child to have these specifics ahead of time. 5) Consider some kind of first day treat or activity afterschool if your schedule allows. Be clear that it’s not an everyday kind of thing, though – those patterns form quickly!
  5. Debrief after the day. Discuss the highs and lows. Talk about feelings she experienced during the day and problem-solve together any issues that came up. Don’t rush to bring up concerns with the teacher – give your child some time to settle in and get used to her surroundings before you get worried about how things are going.

About Kristen:

Kristen Berthiaume, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist with Grayson and Associates. She obtained her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Kentucky. She completed a predoctoral internship in clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a post- doctoral fellowship in the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD) Program at Duke University Medical Center. She specializes in providing assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and families dealing with the following issues: ADHD, learning disorders, social skill deficits, organizational problems, behavioral difficulties, anxiety, and depression. She generally focuses on behavioral and cognitive- behavioral techniques, but maintains a flexible approach to therapy. Her other day job is as mom to her daughters, ages ten and four, and seven-year-old son.

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