School is Starting. How to Make Separation a Little Easier…for both of you!

It’s normal for a child to be in distress when he’s away from his parents and to cry in an effort to be reunited. Crying is an adaptive signal for mom to come back. Between 8 months and 1 year, your child learns that you exist even when you are not there, and doesn’t always understand that when you say goodbye it means that you will be back. He may think it’s permanent. Most kids will calm down quickly when their moms come back, and can be easily distracted or redirected. While separation anxiety usually peaks by 18 months of age, over time as children become more secure with their environments and more confident that mom will return each time she leaves, the fears subside.

However, it might be a problem if your child can’t be reassured when you return and doesn’t seem to recover quickly from being upset. It also might be more than just a phase if your child’s distress gets in the way of him doing activities he should be able to do at his age.

Tips for preparing your child for the start of school and making good-byes easier:

  • Prepare your child for his transition to school by reading books and talking about it. Books are a great way to introduce a child to new things and new ideas. The stories and pictures are also great conversation starters and gives kids the opportunity to ask questions about things that interest or concern them. Generally, one or two weeks is enough time to prepare your child for the transition to school. If your child is a worrier, do not talk about it too far ahead of time because it could cause some anticipatory anxiety.
  • Assume that your child is resilient, and can handle separating from you. You may not agree, but this attitude is more likely to lead to earlier success, even though initially it may take a little time for him to get use to new people and a new situation. After the first month, most children, teachers and parents all adjust to the new school year.
  • Manage your own emotions. On the first day of drop-off, many parents are more worried than their kids. It is important for parents to explore their own feelings about the start of school. Many parents are surprised when they suddenly experience such strong or conflicted emotions on the first day of school. It’s OK to be excited, but also sad or worried. For some, it is the first time their children are away from them, for others it highlights that their children will spend time being taught and influenced by others, often for the first time. Rest assured your connection to your child and your influence on her is always there, even when you are not with her. So try to model a positive and trusting attitude. Remember, when children are in new situation, they look at you for information on how they should respond. If you look nervous, they are likely to become nervous too. They can read your feelings by the expression on your face and by your body language. Try to smile and be upbeat. They will get the message that school is a safe and happy place.
  • Tell your children what they can expect. Use a lot of details and try to help them anticipate the sequence of events. For example, on the first day of school, you might say something like “ I’ll wake you up at 7 o’clock, you’ll use the potty as usual, have breakfast, and then you can play for 30 minutes. After that we’ll get dressed, and then you and I will walk to school. When we get there, your teachers, Julie and Lauren will be waiting to say good morning to you! You are going to do so many fun things at school. You’ll play with new toys, make new friends, play outside on the jungle gym, have a snack, and read stories together. Your teachers will take very good care of you and will help you with anything that you need. When school is over, I will come pick you up, and I will give you a big hug and ask you what your favorite part of the day was!”
  • When dropping off your child, say goodbye in an upbeat way. Do not make a sad face or repeatedly return for one more hug or kiss. Seeing your child distressed can be heart-wrenching for a parent but do not draw out a goodbye. It only prolongs the upset. Most kids are ok soon after their parent leaves. Kiss your child, tell him you are leaving and that you will see him soon and go. Before leaving, do not repeatedly warn or remind your child that you are going to be going soon.
  • Prior to the start of school, you can practice repeated, short separations. The more you leave and come back, the more they will get use to it. Start with going into the bathroom for 15 seconds, multiple times a day, and gradually build from there. Your child will quickly learn what it means when you say “I’ll be back!”

If you spend a lot of time alone with your child, it might be hard for him to separate from you simply because he is accustomed to being with you. Children need to learn to develop trust in others over time. Try to expose them to different caregivers early on. Start with familiar people and extend your circle to include friends and other caretakers. Encourage your child to adjust to being handled and cared for by others. This will build their confidence and sense of safety with people other than mommy and daddy. Know your child’s temperament. If your child is “slow to warm up”, all it means is that he’s slow to warm up, and that changes in routine and transitions might be difficult for him. Instead of having power struggles or directly confronting your child, try to adapt to your child’s temperament without trying to change him. Be sensitive and tune into your child’s cues. If you can understand and accept his unique personality, you can learn how to encourage him to participate in situations that make him feel anxious, including social situations. Do not fall into the trap of accommodating his anxiety by rescuing him when he is nervous or allowing him to avoid things that appear stressful. That might seem easier to do in the short term but learning how to help him confront it will be better over time. If your child is shy, give him a chance to warm up. Understand if your child is reluctant to separate and needs more time to warm up at when arriving at school, or over several days or weeks. Give him time to take in his surroundings and then gently encourage him to approach a friend or play with a toy. This will be more effective than nudging him to play before he is ready. If you push him too soon, it may delay or prevent his adjustment. Your understanding is the most important gift you can give your child. By understanding and accepting your child for who he is and not for who you want him to be, you are teaching him to love himself.

–Dr. Alexandra Barzvi is a licensed clinical psychologist with a private practice in Manhattan. Dr. Barzvi has expertise in evaluating and treating anxiety, mood and behavior disorders in children, adolescents, and young adults. In addition, she is the co-host of “About Our Kids” on Sirius Doctor Radio, a frequent medical contributor to the Today Show and CBS Early Show and certified in Parent Management training from the Yale Parenting Center. She is the Founder of Madison Psychology, PLLC. You can reach her at or