Dealing with Preschool and Elementary School Separation Anxiety

Think separation anxiety ends with infants? Think again. In fact, children anxiety can lead some kids to suffer well into elementary school. In addition to tears flowing as mommy walks away, preschoolers and elementary school age students can experience physical pain as well. Breezy Mama briefly touched on the topic of separation anxiety last week, but followed up with Dr. Fran Walfish to find out why some children have a hard time saying good-bye, what parents can do about it, when to seek kids therapy and more on anxiety and kids.

My kids can’t get to school fast enough – is there something I should be concerned about? In all seriousness, why do some kids have such a hard time being dropped off at school?

You are pointing to Separation Anxiety. This requires you, the parent, to take a hard, honest look within. Are you able to praise every increment in your child’s moving away from you? This includes making his own decisions, choices, and even disagreeing with your ideas? Or, do you argue, fight, negotiate, or lose your temper with your child? This is another way the warm parent/child attachment is temporarily broken and kids suffer anxiety. Parents must deal with your own worries and frustrations before you deal with your child, or your child will likely absorb them.

Even when I’ve seen parents walk their child into preschool, get them settled with an activity, the tantrum starts as soon as they leave the door… and this after at least a year. Why can’t some kids understand mom will be back?

Kids are not born this way. It is learned in response to how they are related to by their moms and dads. Here are a few of the reasons why children may struggle: Child may pick up cues that Mom doesn’t think her child can handle the separation (or worse yet, that Mom can’t handle it); Mom is enmeshed with child and healthy separation has not been established; Mom has not consistently picked her up on time; Mom and child argued in the morning getting ready for school and yelled at child; or too much conflict and fighting during the daytime either between mom and child or mom and dad.

I’ve even seen first graders who feel physically ill at the thought of mom leaving them at school. Should parents seek therapy at this point or is it still somewhat normal?

This is a good time to seek therapy with a top child specialist. Guidance must come from an expert who understands the separation process and can support both child and mother through the process. I have helped many such patients. In first grade children are near 7 years old. This marks the beginning of Latency Stage of Development. This means emotionally kids are no longer little children evolved out of the toddler phase. They are now school-age kids whose defenses are more solidly in place. It takes more effort to dig in and reach what is really going on psychologically in the growing child. If help is not gotten at this critical time children may go underground with these unresolved feelings and other symptoms can emerge.

And can kids actually feel physically ill or are they “faking” to get mom to stick around?

Kids can, and do, feel physically ill. Stomach aches are most commonly associated with Separation Anxiety. Always check with your pediatrician to rule out any physical or medical reason for symptoms. I treat many children who have stomach aches and even nausea from Separation Anxiety. This is why it’s important to reach out for therapy before physical symptoms occur. Naturally, if a child gets a huge reaction from mom when she gets a stomach ache, she may use it to “fake” and get out of attending school, birthday parties, camp or other uncomfortable situations.

Are parents unwittingly contributing to the child’s fears?

Some parents may unwittingly contribute to their child’s fears. This is why it is crucial for parents to take a hard, painful look at how they feel about leaving their child, especially if their child is protesting or showing signs of distress. There are two common subtle, or blatant, cues kids pick up. They are when the parent becomes anxious and distressed, mirrors the child, and both escalate into an anxiety frenzy, or when the parent becomes frustrated and angry with the child’s dependency needs tugging on and demanding of the parent. If you are self-aware, you can keep a lid on your affect, behavior, and body language in order to facilitate your child’s healthy separation toward independent functioning.

For those who have kids entering preschool or elementary school for the first time, what tips do you have so parents can help prepare kids and reduce any fears they may have when getting dropped off for the first time?

There are several things parents can do to help prepare their children in advance of starting preschool or elementary school. First, create a calendar that hangs on the refrigerator door and counts down visually the days to school beginning. Go through it each morning with excitement! Next, take your child for a visit of the school grounds. Show her where her classroom will be, where the bathrooms are, the play yard and lunch tables. It helps to visually see in advance so that she can imagine the environment as you talk countdown to school. Also very important, try to get a class roster or a few names and phone numbers of classmates who will be in your child’s group. Arrange play dates with these children in advance of school starting. It helps your child avoid the feeling of being thrown into a pool of ice water on the first day. One or two friends who your child can connect with will help him let go of you. Also, be sure to introduce your child to his new teachers so that he knows to go to them for help and support, if needed.

What tips do you have for parents to feel better after they have to walk away and leave their screaming child?

You need to believe that your child has developed earlier self-soothing techniques to calm herself down. You must feel confident that her distress is temporary. Many parents are helped by talking to their spouse, a friend, clergyman, or counselor to get support. Separation anxiety is never one-way. It is always a two-way relationship issue. Usually, both child and parent struggle. As long as you have done a thorough job of preparing your child, you can help him immensely by adopting the belief and confidence that he will be okay (and so will you).

For drop off play dates, should parents leave an upset child or skip dropping them off?

Neither. School is mandatory. Play dates are optional. Do not just drop off your upset child. Nor, should you submit and reinforce their belief that they can’t handle a solo play date. Instead, go in with your child and sit off to the side to be available for her to come and go at her own pace for reassurance, if she needs it. After a time when your child appears relaxed and comfortable tell your child you are going to buy a cup of coffee and will return in a half hour. Make your separation gradual in order to help her with increments of separation and the opportunity to see that you keep your word and indeed return in a half hour. This builds her trust and internal security.

Any other tips for helping parents and kids cope with separation anxiety?

If you have tried all of the above suggestions and your child is still struggling with separation anxiety it may help for you to discuss with your pediatrician and ask for a referral to a child therapy specialist. It’s much better to deal with these issues sooner rather than later after they have become imbedded in your child’s organized personality structure. Good luck!

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About Dr. Frances Walfish:
Frances Walfish, Psy.D. is the foremost Beverly Hills child and family psychotherapist. Her caring approach, exuberant style, humor, and astute insights have earned her a sterling reputation among colleagues and national media alike. A frequent guest on top-­tier TV programs, including NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams and KABC-­TV in Los Angeles, The Doctors, CBS and often appearing in major publications such as Parents Magazine, Family Circle and Woman’s Day, Dr. Fran continues to lead the field with her expert insights and innovative strategies for parents, children and couples.

Her current book, The Self-­Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond with Your Child from Palgrave Macmillan’s/St. Martin’s Press, December 7, 2010, is receiving acclaimed reviews. William Morris Endeavor and Lake Paradise Entertainment are presently collaborating with Dr. Fran to produce a television series offering therapeutic guidance and help to families in America. More information on Dr. Fran can be found online at

To order Dr. Walfish’s book ($11.56 on Amazon), click here.

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  1. I dealt with that but it was me who had the problem the most. My kids weren’t too excited about “spend the nights” though. They like to be at home at night.

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