Don’t worry if your kids cry the first few days of school. It’s totally normal and we’re used to it, the teacher at kindergarten orientation reassured parents. Though I listened, I wondered how my son, who worried when I went to the basement without telling him, would make the transition to five days a week of school.
According to Dr. Bennett Leventhal, child psychiatrist and professor of psychology at the Institute for Juvenile Research at University of Illinois at Chicago, anxiety about separation from our loved ones is an everyday occurrence. "It’s as common for children as it is for adults. We all have days we don’t want our spouse to leave for work. It’s the same for kids. So, it’s important to define when that anxiousness becomes problematic."
In my son’s case, he cried every morning I left him at school. He even cried and requested extra hugs and kisses when I left for book club, which I’d done monthly without incident for five years. Individually, none of these things were cause for concern, but all together they sent me scrambling to the Internet for any information on easing anxiety in kids.
Every piece of information I found linked heightened anxiety to some sort of trauma. I could think of no reason to account for his sudden fear of losing me. Again, Leventhal cautions against turning normal life events into traumas. "A ‘trauma’ is a truly life-altering experience. For children, the death of a pet or moving to a new school are normal parts of growing up. What’s more important than the event is how the family handles these changes."
Most importantly, talk to your children and ask questions when something unexpected happens. "What do you think about that?" "How does that make you feel?" And even when your child’s worries seem irrational (there’s a green monster under my desk) Leventhal recommends acknowledging the fear and finding a creative solution. "Wow. Green monsters are scary. How about if you keep a rubber band around your wrist so you can pop him when he shows up?"
Although a certain level of anxiety is normal, there are warning signs that may point toward an anxiety disorder. According to Leventhal, the bottom line is that "when the worry starts to disorganize a child’s life, it’s time for help." What does that mean? Symptoms last for more than a week. Your child can’t get his work done or has trouble playing with friends. She is less talkative and has trouble eating or sleeping. "You know your child best. If you see a major difference, talk to his teacher and see if his symptoms are carrying over to school. Talk to the school counselor or your pediatrician and ask for help," Leventhal advises.
For children who reach the level of needing professional help, there are several options. Psychiatrists may use cognitive and behavior therapy where they talk about examples of separation and what might happen as well as practice situations and possible solutions. In severe cases, doctors may also prescribe medications to lessen anxiety.
Just as I reached the point where I was ready to seek professional help, my son’s anxiety seemed to lessen. We took baby steps. I continued to walk him into his classroom and we set up a routine of him waving goodbye out the window. We went back to a favorite book, "The Kissing Hand." I applied lipstick before I left the house and gave his palm a nice firm kiss.
Now I am preparing him for the next school year. After a summer of lazy days and together time, I know we may have some false starts in the days to come. My son reassures me all the time, "Don’t worry mom. I’m all over that scared stuff."
Talk, listen and ask questions
According to Dr. Bennett Leventhal, child psychiatrist and professor of psychology at the Institute for Juvenile Research at University of Illinois at Chicago, you should talk frequently.
"The best way to inoculate your child from undue anxiety is to make the ideas of separation and loss part of your daily conversation," he says.
• Keep the conversation going. Use the dinner table (or whenever your family gathers) to talk about what’s going on in your lives as well as the lives of your children’s friends.
• Ask questions and listen to the answers. What do you think that means? How would you feel if that happened to you? What can we do to help you solve that problem? All these questions are an opportunity to show your child you are interested. They may also help you discover the root of a hidden worry.
• Be honest. When a young child asks about death or body parts, don’t use code words or evade the issue. Give them the answers to their questions in the simplest terms possible. Again, asking your daughter what she thinks "death" means is a good way to find out what she really understands.
• Practice separation. Life is a series of separations, big and little. From babysitters and kindergarten to new schools and college, children will need to deal with many separations. When small partings, even as simple as playdates and babysitters, become routine, children are better able to handle longer separations. These small instances give children a sense of confidence and an emotional place to get back to when faced with a bigger challenge.
Alena Murguia is the mother of Patrick, Connor and Matthew and works part-time for Chicago Parent.