How to deal with separation anxiety as kids head back to school

Meeting the challenge of school drop-offs can build lifelong coping skills.

Experts explain why kids get separation anxiety — and how parents can help them.
Experts explain why kids get separation anxiety — and how parents can help them. (Getty Images)

The soundtrack for the back-to-school season is accented with excited chatter in the school playground, the shrill gathering call of the bell and the inevitable crescendo of anguished cries from tear-streaked open mouths. As much as the return to school means structure and academics, it can also signify separation anxiety for many families.

In September, the search term "separation anxiety" peaks for good reasons: Distressed parents resort to Google either for solutions for their children's seemingly nonstop blood-curdling screams at drop-off, or for help dealing with the sudden onslaught of tears once the novelty of recess and Play-Doh wears off.

I was one of those parents who peeled my child off my leg in the designated preschool goodbye area, marched to the parking lot and wept because my child's distress felt unbearable. I wasn't alone. That year, a handful of families decided to delay or leave the preschool altogether — an idea I also toyed with during those emotional first days (OK, weeks).

I wish I had known then how good those trying times were for my son. These experiences helped make him more antifragile — a term that describes the mental strength built by allowing kids to face age-appropriate adversity like school drop-offs, lost homework and exposure to difficult news. According to researchers Tracy Dennis-Tiwary and Nassim Nicholas Taleb (who coined the word "antifragile" in his 2012 book of the same name), a little struggle and its ensuing anxiety can be beneficial.

Even though separation anxiety can feel bad for everyone, it can function as a guardrail into the future. If supported correctly, today's school drop-off anguish can help children build the skills necessary to start future school years smoothly. Here's what experts say can help reframe the struggle of back-to-school anxiety and raise more antifragile kids.

Why separation anxiety happens

For all the parents who think they have the only child in the school who struggles with separation, it's important to remember that it's developmentally appropriate behavior.

"That can actually be a sign of a very secure attachment," says Dennis-Tiwary, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the City University of New York.

Separation anxiety usually comes from a child's uncertainty about being separated from a caregiver. It's one of the first steps of becoming their own person. Uncertainty can cause discomfort, tears and anguished cries. While more common with babies and preschool-age children, separation anxiety can strike at any age.

In his experience working with school-age children at Camp Champions in Marble Falls, Texas, owner and director Steve Baskin can tell which kids will have separation anxiety by watching the parent.

"In other words, the parent is not reacting to the child; the child is reacting to the parent," says Baskin. "And if the parent has sent the message 'You're only safe if Mommy's there,' then you say, 'I'm going away' ... what do you expect is going to happen?"

At the start of the school year, some kids run into the playground and don't need any support, while others may need a teacher's hand to hold. Some kids might need help for longer, and that's normal behavior. But there is a difference between separation anxiety and separation anxiety disorder, according to Dennis-Tiwary. Red flags for the latter include the intensity and duration of refusing to go to school, or turning down playdates without parents.

What is antifragility?

According to Taleb, being antifragile means seeking adversity for personal growth. Antifragility can be achieved through the temporary discomfort of challenges like separation because they are opportunities to build lifelong coping skills.

At Romp & Rollick, a place for toddler classes in Pasadena, Calif., little ones dance, sing and paint. At the same time, parents and caretakers usually talk about a list of the same rotating topics. According to Meryl Opsal, Romp & Rollick's director and lead teacher, "Separation anxiety is definitely on that list."

She says the key to antifragility is through a foundational skill: self-regulation.

"When you're upset, can you get yourself back on track?" says Opsal. "I think that's really what people are talking about when they talk about resiliency or antifragility. How do we learn to self-regulate?"

The answer might be in the power of belief. "Knowing your child can do it — really deeply believing 'my child can do this,'" she says. "And then showing that confidence through your actions, modeling to them that you are confident in them."

How to grow antifragility and have smoother school drop-offs

How can parents reframe separation anxiety to make morning routines less bumpy? While meltdowns can still happen, sometimes knowing that these challenges help kids grow stronger can help everyone stay on track.

First, check thyself

When your child is having a (developmentally appropriate) meltdown at school drop-off, it helps to identify whether the discomfort is your child's or your own. "It helps to say, 'OK, I know I want to minimize their pain right now, but if I keep building into their fragility, they're never going to be the person they need to be,'" says Baskin.

Talk to the school about its approach to separation anxiety

Some schools have a developmental approach, some don't. To ensure that a school can support the child through this challenging phase, look for a school with a wide range of tactics — not a one-size-fits-all plan, says Opsal.

Set expectations

Before drop-off, make a plan with your child that includes a reunion time (like "after lunch"). Tell your kids what to expect, suggests Opsal, by saying something like "These are the hours that you are going to school." Then hold the line.

Transition attachment

At drop-off, transition the attachment to the trusted person at school. Hug your child and tell them, "This is your grown-up now. They are going to take care of you," says Opsal. Kiss them and leave confidently like you're leaving them in a safe and happy place.

Tap into the ways that children make sense of their world

Connect through play, art or literature. Read books like The Kissing Hand, a classic that's long been used to help kids make sense of starting a new school. Draw pictures about separation and incorporate separation into imagination play.

Encourage the inner warrior and turn down the 'worrier'

Baskin likes to tell kids that a warrior lives on one of their shoulders, while a worrier lives on the other. "Which one are you going to listen to?" he asks. This, he says, helps direct the stress processing system toward helpful stress by assuming strength and capability.