Back to School Separation Anxiety

A smooth transition back to school after time off

January 2, 2022

By Dr. Jacquelyn Bogdanov,
licensed psychologist (WI 3661-57) and a certified PCIT therapist

Back to School Separation Anxiety hero

Heading back to school after a break can be rocky for many kids. If you keep one big idea in mind, and have a specific plan for kids who are more anxious about it, you will have a smoother transition. And you will be stronger for it.

So, here’s one big idea to help with back-to-school:
Have a little vacation and a little school all year round.

No, you don’t need to give your child math problems all year. But, keep some of the structure you have during the school year, even during time off. Keep bedtimes and wake-ups within an hour of the regular time. Eat meals at about the same time as on school days. Have some quiet time for practicing a hobby or new skill, similar to time spent on homework.

To have a little vacation all year round – consider what your family values most about time off. Figure out how to do some of those things more often. Maybe every weekend you’ll cook a new recipe. Or, maybe you’ll start a weekly parent-child date night. Whatever is special for your family during the holidays, build that into your regular school-year routine. Everyone will get through that transition slump more easily, and you’ll have something to look forward to.

For kids who have had anxiety about school before, expect that going back to school will bring up not-so-great feelings. Have a specific plan for handling that anxiety:

  1. Spend 10 minutes of one-on-one time each day. Let your child choose something to play or do together. Avoid distractions like phones, and occupy siblings with something else. Give your child your full attention and let them be the guide during the activity.
  2. Prepare your child for the change and their feelings about it. Let them know what to expect when they head back to school. If bedtimes or other things in their routine have shifted, tell them about the changes. Try asking, “what do you think will be the hardest part about going back to school?”
  3. Tell your child you “get” how they’re feeling, and you know they are strong enough to handle it. For example, “you’re nervous to go back to school. That makes sense since school feels different than home. I know you’re a strong kid who can be brave.” Statements like these help kids feel less alone and build kids’ confidence.
  4. When it’s time for the good-bye, keep your tone, words, and body language calm and confident. Make it short and sweet. Try giving your child something to remind them of you. Avoid statements of logic or reasoning. When kids are worked up, they can’t hear that anyway. Use your words to describe the situation and point out your child’s bravery. Try saying, “we are almost to school. I see you looking at your teacher at the door. Thank you for letting me help you out of the car.”

Making changes and trying something different can be tough. Remember, with time and consistent practice, hard things will get easier. Learn More at the Child Behavior Clinic.