Every morning after I left my daughter in her preschool classroom, she cried until she threw up.
Granted, Ellie has an amazing ability to barf practically on demand, so it wasn’t surprising that she did it so readily. The surprising thing was that she cried so much at the start of her second year.
You’d think that with the Twos class under her belt, Ellie would have been ready to rock the Threes class. After all, the teachers, my husband and I, and Ellie herself were armed with tips on coping with separation anxiety from a Jewish Social Services Agency social worker who had worked with us throughout that first year at her beloved Olam Tikvah Preschool..
But here I was, listening to the teacher tell me that Ellie cried until she got sick, had trouble transitioning from activity to activity, and refused to participate in the weekly fitness class. No amount of cajoling or isolating would sway her. It was her last bastion of control and she was not letting it go, damn it.
More JSSA social workers were called…but one day Ellie stopped. She stopped crying, stopped puking and started participating. She suddenly became a model student and has stayed that way ever since. She’s now seven and about to enter second grade.
I’ll never know what worked to get her past her severe separation anxiety; maybe it wasn’t a single thing but a combination of our efforts.
I tell this story because somehow it’s already August, and that means many of us are getting ready to send our children back to school or to school for the first time. It’s exciting, but also really, really stressful for parents and children alike. We worry about things like whether the teacher will be nice and which friends will be in the class—and so do they.
Although I was nervous about sending my baby at 20 months to be cared for, for three hours three times a week by people I had met only once, I didn’t think about how she would feel about being away from me that first year. My naivete meant that Ellie’s separation anxiety blindsided me. Both times.
It turns out separation anxiety doesn’t have a one-time fix. It can return at many points throughout childhood (and even adulthood, one could say). At least now after two major bouts of it and many consultations with professionals, I feel prepared to deal with it. And I want to share what I have learned with you in case you too find yourself kvetching about retching.
1. Create a storyboard. While your child is calm, talk to them about what’s going to happen the next day. Give a step-by-step visual such as, “You’ll get up, brush your teeth, eat breakfast and get your shoes on. Then we will drive to school and play “I Spy” on the way.
When we get there, I’ll walk you to your classroom and hug you and say, “Mommy/Daddy/Grandma/Grandpa/Nanny always comes back. You’ll have time to play, story time, recess, lunch and then after lunch, Mommy/Daddy/Grandma/Grandpa/Nanny will come back.”
2. Follow your script and once you’ve gone through it, walk away. Don’t linger at drop-off. It only draws out the anticipation of the separation longer.
3. Give your child a family photo to stash in their backpacks or on an accessible shelf in the classroom. Tell them to look at it when they feel sad, and think about something fun you all did together.
4. Give your child a security blanket. Not literally a blanket, unless that’s what works. For preschoolers, it might be a special stuffed animal, or something textural that they can squish or squeeze. Older kids might want something less obvious, such as a piece of jewelry they can look at to inspire happy thoughts.
5. Teach your child a mantra. Ellie came up with this on her own, but it’s something we used for years and that I later used with her little brother: “Mommy always comes back.”
6. If your child has a sibling or cousin or friend in the same school but a different class, you can ask the teacher to make sure they connect at various points during the day. Letting your child see a familiar face live and in the flesh can help calm their nerves.
Remember that separation anxiety can manifest in not-so-obvious ways, too. Although Ellie marches around the 800-plus-student elementary school like she’s the principal, I notice that she has trouble falling asleep at the beginning of the school year.
She’s subconsciously processing her concerns without being aware of it or able to verbalize it. When this happens, we suggest she refocus her thoughts by reading a book in bed or concentrating on a specific fun activity that happened that day.
I’m not a psychologist or social worker, so my suggestions for dealing with separation anxiety are simply that: suggestions. Rather than an expert, I’m just a mom who’s been there and can say, “This too shall pass.” (Hey, maybe that can be your mantra.) I wish you an easy transition back to school and best of luck during the 2017-18 year.