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Here’s how to deal with separation anxiety for students, parents

Dr. Melissa Estavillo (KTAR News Photo/Ali Vetnar)

PHOENIX — Many kids excel when they are connected to their parents; they feel like that is their home base.

Biltmore Psychology and Counseling’s Dr. Melissa Estavillo says separation anxiety happens a lot with children in really loving and supportive families because they feel so comfortable there, making it very uncomfortable to step out of it when they are headed back to school.

Estavillo said separation anxiety can manifest itself in several ways.

“We will see clinging behaviors when kids want to be really close if they’re super young. They might literally cling to their mother or father’s side,” she said.

“It could be places where they are acting out a little bit more. They may be a little more aggressive or frustrated because when we are generally feeling anxious, we think about the trembling behaviors but a lot of the time it comes out as irritability.”

How can parents prepare their children for school and the separation it will bring?

Estavillo recommends creating a mental representation of the family system.

“That can play out when you’re able to spend that concerted time with a child and say, ‘Hey I’m here with you!’ Maybe put a kiss in their hand, if they’re a little kid,” she said.

She also recommends giving children verbal reminders and confirmation, like, “When you are scared or nervous, I’m there with you!”

“I’m going to ask you about your day when you get home. I am there with you in spirit, so they don’t feel as far away from their home system.”

But separation anxiety does not just impact children. Parents are also prone to feeling anxious when it comes to time apart from their kids.

“It can be super hard, especially for new parents when it’s their first time leaving their child. Parents can worry about school safety, and also watching your kids struggle is hard,” Estavillo said.

In the parent version of that mental representation of the family system, Estavillo advises parents to maybe take a selfie with their child before school. Then they can look at it throughout the day and see their child smiling.

Estavillo believes there is a general thought that if parents coddle a child, give extra hugs or keep them physically close, then parents might make the anxiety worse. But she says that is the opposite of the truth.

“If a child is clinging, the best thing to do is give them a big hug. And then establish the boundary saying afterwards, ‘OK, I’m leaving now.’”

She added, “But don’t think that love will make things worse; it actually makes things better. That connection is so important for them to feel less anxious.”

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