First Day of school: Separation Anxiety

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It's the first day of school for most children in BC.  My Facebook feed is filled with pictures of children posing with smiling faces and eagerly anticipating reuniting with friends.  Proud parents sharing the joy of new beginnings and experiencing the mixed feelings of joy and sadness in embracing this new season. However, there are also experiences of the first day of school for some children and parents that are less visible on social media platforms.  For many children, the first day of school is extremely challenging as separation anxiety comes to visit.

Seperation anxiety was a dominant part of my son's journey through the first few years of school.  There were countless days of tears (from both of us) as we tried to find a way to maintain connection even though we are separated while he was at school. There were days when I (Loraine) was not sure we would make it through.  It broke my heart to see him struggling so much!

I knew that finding a way to "Bridge the Gap" (Neufeldt) was vital, so we worked hard to find ways to stay connected.  I sent family pictures in his planner that he could look at during the day. We picked out a special rock he could keep in his pocket to hold onto when he missed me.  I got him some beautiful lavender essential oils to smell and apply.  I talked to his teachers about his struggles and brought them in as allies in helping him navigate the separation.  Our morning routine became more intentional and included more times of calm so that we could all leave the house without being stressed.  All of these things were helpful and good, but they did not make the anxiety go away.  As a momma and as a therapist I didn't know what else to do!

Finally I realized that I was trying so hard to make his feelings go away, that I was not allowing him the permission to feel them fully so his brain could integrate them.  I noticed that I was getting anxious about him feeling anxious, and that it was spilling over into how I was trying to help him.  I made a decision (through some of my own therapy) to adjust the way I was approaching the situation.   I began to simply be with him in his anxiety and allowing him to fully feel it.  If this sounds heart wrenching, you are correct. Seeing my baby boy struggling was one of the hardest things I have ever had to witness.  All I could do is hug him and tell him that I was there with him.  I gave him full permission to feel and express his fear of being apart from me no mater how long it lasted. If I am being totally honest, there were many days when I questioned if sending him to school was worth the physical and emotional exhaustion that came as he worked through his anxiety.  I wish I could say that things changed things quickly, they did not.  In fact, things even got worse for my poor boy, to the point of him being physically ill each morning before school, hardly eating, and not wanting to be anywhere without me. However, over time, he started to grow in his ability to tolerate these deep and scary feelings, knowing that although I could not take them away, I would be with him through it. We have been on this journey together for just over 3 years.  He still has days when separation anxiety visits, but we can navigate it much more easily now.

If your child struggles with separation anxiety, there is hope!  As a momma and as a therapist I can assure your things can change!  This morning when I dropped my kids off at their classrooms for a new school year, my heart could have burst!  My boy ran confidently from my side and lined up with the rest of his classmates.  He flashed a huge smile and a quick wave as his walked up the stairs to his portable.  We both know that if anxiety visits he will be able to tolerate it, and he knows that I'll be here waiting to reconnect when he gets home.

If you are looking for support in helping your child navigate separation anxiety please contact us at Re.Pose