School & Daycare: Handling Separation Anxiety

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Your children have been back to school for a few weeks now. It’s been long enough, that you probably have a solid grasp on how it’s going. Has it been smooth sailing for your little people? Or, are you perhaps noticing signs of separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety is a normal phase of most children’s development and is a pretty standard expectation for children between 12-18 months old. We can all picture this age group becoming upset or sometimes even hysterical, when their primary caretaker leaves the room. For children who are being raised by their biological parents, this separation anxiety can be a time of great concern.

But, for adoptive and foster children, separations can tap into their past trauma(s) and can be even more challenging than the more typical milestone described above. After all, many of these children were abandoned or removed from their first homes, never to see their first caregivers again. Some have been shuffled from foster home to foster home. And then there’s the separation that occurs in most international adoptions, and that’s when the baby is handed over to you – the new loving adoptive parents. While some agencies and countries do a better job of these transitions, the majority of them are still overwhelmingly anxiety producing for the children. Suddenly the child is placed in the arms of someone who doesn’t look, sound or smell like anyone they’ve ever seen before. How terrifying!

Yet, realizing that these children have been through separations of great magnitude, we often seem surprised at their level of separation anxiety when we drop them off at the sitter’s or leave them at school. And, if we aren’t aware of the importance, we can follow some very bad advice. How the adults in the adopted child’s world react to separating can make a great deal of difference in how the child responds.

Here are some basic “Don’ts” for school aged children:

*Don’t sneak out the back door without saying goodbye (perhaps just like the child’s original abandonment).

*Don’t leave them at daycare centers or new schools for the first time, without any transitional efforts which would allow the child to adjust to new adults and getting to know the people/environment there.

*Don’t consider your feelings first. It’s hard to leave your little one, and many parents feel guilty. So, rather than face the “scene” your child will make, slipping away unnoticed just seems easier. This may be easier on you, but not on your child.

*And, some parents will err to the other extreme, making the separation such a long, drawn-out, tearful event that the child’s anxiety levels increase. Separating from your child should be a deliberate event, after you’ve given the child a chance to get comfortable with their new surroundings and the caregivers.

As parents of children who have been abandoned, shuffled around and separated from those they love, we need to be cognizant of how our children are adjusting to separating from us. Day care providers and school personnel will often minimize separation anxiety issues, even if our children’s anxiety continues to increase. Watch for signs of whether your child is adjusting or not. And don’t be timid to ask for modifications to routines or procedures if the way your child is required to separate from you is adding to their anxiety. Some centers or schools require that a child be dropped off at the door, which is sometimes not right for an anxious child.

In many adoptive and foster children, separation anxiety doesn’t show up for many months or years after they’ve come into your homes. This anxiety often takes adoptive parents by surprise, because the child can be much older than what we consider typical (toddler stage).  As we know, children have to build that attachment to you first, so that you’re no longer just one more of a string of temporary adults in their lives. After that, they can experience the emotional developmental stage of separation anxiety. New school routines, a class filled with kids they do not know, different winding hallways, etc. involves a lot of processing for a five, six, seven or eight year old!

So, much to our confusion and embarrassment, this stage can show up in elementary-aged children, causing problems at their schools. Don’t let the adults in the situation dictate what must be done because of your child’s chronological age. Teachers may emphatically tell you that this step is abnormal and needs to be dealt with “firmly.” Child psychologists will advise otherwise.

You know what your child needs. You also know his history and the potential trauma triggers. Don’t minimize your child’s feelings. Watch his reactions and find a place and a way to separate what works for him.

Here are a couple of ideas about helping your school aged child ease her worries:

*An Exercise: sit in a chair behind your child and face her away from you. Then, ask if she can see you. Naturally, the child might whip her head around and said, “Of course I can. You’re right there.” Tell her to turn back around and close her eyes. Then ask her the same question again. Your child will probably exclaim something like “YES! I can see you!” Prod a little bit: “How can you see me?” She might answer: “Because I KNOW you’re sitting on the couch!”

EXCELLENT! At drop-offs you can remind her of this exercise and stress that “You may not be in the room at school with her, but you are at home sitting in your chair. And she can “see” you in that chair!  You will ALWAYS be there for her.”  

*Place a few family pictures in a small album that your child can access if she gets uneasy at school. This can be kept in a backpack or desk.

*Allow your child to take a comfort object to school.   A small stuffed friend or a special memento can be stashed in the backpack, or carried in a pocket.  The child can then access this when they need reassurance.  Consider giving the memento or stuffed friend a symbolic “kiss” before your child departs. My daughter actually carried a metal heart in her pocket for several weeks at the start of a new school, in first grade.  

*Print out a photo of the family together, laminate it, and have your child help to affix it to the inside of a lunchbox.

With time and consistency – these tiny little reassurances just might get your little one through their school day… tear and anxiety free.  With time and baby-steps toward improvement – the anxiety should alleviate.  Do consider a talk with your CHI social worker or a school principal, if this appears to be an ongoing problem for your child for additional ideas and approaches.

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