Your Child’s Separation Anxiety and School

Preschool boy holding on to his moms leg.

As the school year starts, children may have some anxiety about going to school. This could happen even if they are not going to school for the first time. The idea of new experiences away from their parents or other loved ones can be quite scary for children. Complaining of an upset stomach, headache, or something else is often how children show anxiety and fear. Separation anxiety is a normal part of development for all children.

The anxiety may not only be related to school. It can happen before other separations like sleepovers at friend’s houses or a parent’s business trip. Children may be afraid that something bad will happen during the separation. And clingy behavior, pleading, and tantrums are common just before the separation. They may also have nightmares, refuse to sleep alone, or need frequent reassurance that everything is OK.

Supportive, yet firm

The best way to deal with fears is to be supportive, yet firm. For example, you might say, “I think you’re feeling nervous, but you do have to go to school. Tell me what you’re worried about.” You may find that there is a real problem causing the anxiety. There may be a bully, a tough teacher, or a test or assignment. If there is a problem, work with your child toward a solution.

Don’t give in to arguments or tantrums. That teaches children that those things will work. Tell the teacher about your child’s worries. Most teachers are experts at handling separation anxiety. Most important, reward your children with praise every time they go to school and stay at school without much difficulty.

It is also important to be consistent and create quick goodbye rituals. Always tell your child in a way they can understand specifically when you will return. And keep your promises.

Most of the time, school separation anxiety ends quickly. Children who are anxious may have other problems, both currently and later in life. Sometimes separation anxiety is a reaction to a recent event such as:

  • Divorce or remarriage

  • Illness or death of a family member or friend

  • Moving somewhere new

Children whose families have histories of panic disorder, phobias, depression, or alcoholism may be more likely to have separation anxiety. Contact your child’s healthcare provider if the behavior lasts for more than a few days or if the symptoms seem severe.

Online Medical Reviewer: Dan Brennan MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Liora C Adler MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Stacey Wojcik MBA BSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 8/1/2023
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