Whether your child is going back to school, starting school for the first time or even just going off to a childcare…this can be a stressful time in their life (and honestly, in yours too). Separation anxiety is not uncommon to experience both from your child’s perspective and yours as well. In fact, as Julia Pappas, a cognitive Psychologist and Parenting Coach, mentioned in a recent article on the topic…
Separation anxiety is a normal developmental phenomenon, a transitional stage each young child goes through on a journey towards independence.
And that’s exactly what bothers us so much. Our babies are going off and being independent and it’s hard on us and on them. It’s scary to be alone. Here’s some more from Julia about the normalcy of separation anxiety and all the feelings related to it. In this post we’ll talk about what separation anxiety is, discuss our story and struggle with it and then I’ll give you a list of separation anxiety children’s books to help you get through these troubling times! Let’s hop right in.
Separation Anxiety & Tears
from Julia, cognitive Psychologist…
“When you leave your little one in the care of someone else and walk away, you can expect your child to be devastated. There will be tears, loud crying, grabbing onto you, etc. This is known as separation anxiety. It is not a disorder, but a developmental process during which the child comes to understand three main things: 1. When parents leave, they do not disappear forever, and they do come back. 2. When other adults take care of us, we can be safe around them, and be loved by them. 3. When other adults take care of us, they do not replace our parents.
All anxieties are rooted in some kind of fear. Separation anxiety is based in the child’s fear of losing you. Until the child’s first experiences of being away from you, you are the only person who has made them feel safe and secure. You have been the only person who they could rely on to meet their basic needs. You are the only person they have formed an attachment with. Being left with another adult triggers the fear of unknown (“What will happen to me?”) and the fear of loss (“Will I ever see my mom again?”).
These are very difficult things to process for a young mind, and that is why we see the kind of reaction we see at drop-off. Separation anxiety can manifest itself in any scenario where the child is being left with a new adult. This could be a family member that does not live in the home, a daycare center, a new babysitter, a new teacher, etc. The situation itself may feel new, even if similar transition has happened before. For example, the child can express fears when going back to school after a long break (summer vacation, winter holidays, etc.) even though they know the teacher.
The only way the child can get through this developmental stage is by having a repeated experience of being dropped-off and then picked up again. The younger the child and the less familiar the new adult, the longer time this adjustment may take. So have patience and know that the experience itself will help the child adjust to the change. Initially, shorter separation periods are more gentle on the child, and can be gradually increased.
It is important to know that — as with any big change in the child’s life — routines are critical in creating a supportive environment. The more predictability the child has during this transition, the smoother it will go. Routines make it easier for the child to create a mental frame around what is going to happen next and, therefore, feel more secure.”
Our Struggle with Separation Anxiety
I want to share a little about our journey with being apart to prep the stage for the way I’ve learned to utilize children’s books to approach this difficult – but totally necessary and normal – transition. As I write this, the struggle is still very fresh – we are just on the other side of separation anxiety and fear about going to school for the first time. You may know, my daughter Addison is a brand new two year old. From November 2016 to July 2017 we were away from my husband (military stuff) and then in July we moved to South Carolina. There have been a lot of changes in my sweet daughter’s life, and during much of that eight month period, we clung to each other for support and love.
It wasn’t a surprised to me that the first day – scratch that, the first two weeks – of preschool were tough for her.
She’d become used to being with me every single day. We had a rhythm and routine she was comfortable with. She was smaller than all the other kids and she’s a bit shy. The first week of school was pure torture. Every day I would walk with gritted teeth into the preschool knowing she would be scared and freak out as soon as we walked through the doors. I know I had to just give her a big kiss and run out, but hearing my daughter scream “mommy, no!” as I left her broke my heart in two. I went into the car with tears in my eyes almost every single day for two weeks kicking myself for being such a terrible mother.
What kind of mom leaves her child crying and begging to return?
Luckily, I was given so much amazing advice from some knowledgeable friends and I am so grateful for that. I was afraid she wouldn’t shake the fear, but actually after just one and a half weeks she was already seeming more confident. She’s young and everything has been changing, I’m giving her all the grace to know that it’s okay to be scared. I get scared when I go somewhere new, too! I have also given her the space to find her own way, to figure it out and to gain that confidence on her own.
She still cries just a little or puts on her big pouty lip, but I know that she is okay. When I come to pick her up and she’s got the biggest smile on her face and is so proud to show me all of the cool things she got to do that day, I know she’s growing. She’s blossoming and she’s becoming that confident girl I have always known she could be. This is her chance to shine, and I need to let her face her battles courageously.
These tactics have been the most helpful to us as we practice intentional parenting and battle separation anxiety:
- Love and encouragement before and after school
- Giving her a stuffed animal to take with her (thanks to Tara Bosler and her daughter for this suggestion)
- Telling her I love her and then just leaving – lingering prolongs the experience I have learned, thanks to Julia (read more tips for dealing with separation anxiety)
- Reiterating how fun school is, and talking about all the best parts
- Fostering open communication between myself and her teachers about her progress – they reported last week that she’s blossomed and grown so much
- Reading plenty of separation anxiety children’s books about school, being alone, having confidence, bravery…and everything in between.
One of the best ways I have known to cope with stressful parenting situations has always been to use children’s literature to guide me. That’s why building our intentional bookshelf is a priority to us, because when these kinds of dilemmas come up, I know we are armed with a book to help us along the way.
Julia agrees that reading separation anxiety children’s books with your kids can help ease the transition:
“A really great and comforting routine every parent can incorporate into the day is reading a story together. Be intentional in selecting a story and be mindful of the kind of message that is being communicated through the book. This story, read again and again, will become the child’s internal dialogue. It will help process being away from you. So pick a book on the topic that communicates the message of safety and comfort while away from parents. This would not be a good time, for example, to read stories about stranger danger or school bullies.
My personal favorite is The Kissing Hand. Not only is this a book that communicates the right message about temporary separations, but it also gives you an idea of the kind of special drop-off routine you can create with your own child.”
20 Fantastic Children’s Books About School
You know I’m always looking for ways to help my fellow parents through similar struggles, too. Thus, I have curated 20 fantastic books (for kids of all ages) about school, separation anxiety, independence and being fearless in these new endeavors. To grab your epic printable version to take along with you to the library, bookstore or wherever, sign up below or click here (or the picture – so many ways to do it). I added in a little summary of the book as well as some of the values or lessons that can be pulled out of each of them. I hope these help you as you endure the hardships of separation anxiety and the back to school season.
When the going gets tough, grab a book for support
Our family will always cling to our bookshelf in times of need. We have taken the time to build the solid values into the books we read so that when we need some parenting support, we have it in the form of a concrete and engaging story. You shouldn’t have to parent empty handed.
Learn more about Julia Pappas
A special thanks to our psychologist & parenting coach expert. Julia Pappas is a psychologist and parent coach, with over fifteen years of experience working with children of all ages and their parents. She offers tip, strategies, and tools on her website at juliapappas.co and can be found on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook at @askjuliapappas. Check out her parenting toolbox, too!
Sign up below to grab your printable, 20 fantastic children’s books about school (and access to all intentional bookshelf free resources)!!