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Back-to-School Jitters or Separation Anxiety?

The first day of school can be an uneasy time for young children, even those who have some experience with school under their belts.

Child psychologist Lawrence Balter has some advice on how parents can tell the difference between normal first-day-of-school jitters and the more serious problem of "separation anxiety," and what they can do about both.

Just the way an adult feels a bit of anxiety and anticipation before doing anything new or challenging, a little nervousness is expected, says Dr. Balter. It's really a matter of degree.

But there are also conditions that are more serious than just age-appropriate worrying about going to school. Sometimes a child suffers from something known as "separation anxiety disorder," he says.

The following are some signs to look for:

  • Shows excessive distress when parents discuss school.
  • Worries about bad things happening to relatives and caregivers.
  • Shows fear of being alone.
  • Has nightmares about separation.
  • Complains of nausea, stomachaches, and headaches.

If these symptoms persist for more than a month, parents should find professional help--a child psychologist to help the child cope with fears, a family therapist to work with the parents, and sometimes a child psychiatrist to monitor medication to calm the child's symptoms.

Balter says there are different theories about what causes separation anxiety. First, you need to rule out realistic things such as having a teacher the child doesn't like, or a bully in the class who picks on her. If you rule these things out, then you need to look for underlying causes. Very often, something happened that creates a fear of leaving home. It might be a new baby at home, or a sick parent, or a parent who loses a job, or a divorce. These are emotionally stressful and cause a child to want to stay home to make sure everything is fine. It's not just about going to school. Sometimes we just don't know.

Balter also offered the following tips to help parents make their children’s transition more comfortable:

  • If your child separates more easily from your spouse, let the other one take the child to school. Do whatever it takes to minimize the anxiety.
  • Make the goodbyes short and sweet. It's sometimes as hard for a parent to say goodbye as it is for the child. Prolonging goodbyes just exacerbates a separation problem. It gives the child reason to think that she should be nervous. If your child needs to have you around for 5 minutes, then it is okay to dawdle for the first day.
  • If your child cries, a rule of thumb for a kindergarten child is--if your child stops crying after 5 to 10 minutes, there is no reason to be concerned. Reassure the child that everything will be okay, tell him that he is in good hands, hand him over to the teacher, and make a quick exit.
  • Don’t drive the child on the first day if they will normally be takig a bus to school. If he is supposed to ride a bus, it's going to be part of the routine, so get them used to it right away. If you want to, you can follow the bus. Not putting them on the bus may create confusion.
  • Meet the child at the end of the day. It's important for one parent to try to be at school or at home when the bus drops the child off at the end of the day, even if there's a babysitter. If possible, arrange your schedule to be around for the first several days of school. It can help a child overcome any fears of abandonment he or she may have. Praising and recognizing the child's accomplishment of getting through the first day of school is important. Have a treat handy and be ready to talk over the day and learn if there were any problems. Don't pump for information, but ask her to describe the day.

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