Nervous about school or true separation anxiety?

Aug 9, 2013 at 1:00 p.m. ET

Children may become nervous about school at any age. How do you tell if your child is having first-day-of-school butterflies or serious anxiety? We talked to experts to learn how to identify signs of separation anxiety.

First day of school anxiety

Your child’s worries may be one more thing to prepare for as the school year gears up. Fortunately, even serious separation anxiety is treatable. Discover the signs of separation anxiety and learn how to develop an action plan that supports your child.

Signs of school nervousness

Jeff Menzise, Ph.D., is a school psychologist. He describes school jitters as a reluctance to attend school or minor episodes of nervousness. “The child's focus is not necessarily on having to leave the parent as much as it is on entering the new environment,” Menzise says. “It's usually mild and will resolve itself after the first couple of days attending.” Most kids are nervous about school or about particular aspects of school, especially early in the school year.

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Signs of separation anxiety

“In cases of separation anxiety, the child's reactions to having to leave the parent tend to be far more extreme and focused on the actual leaving of the parent, regardless of where they are going,” says Menzise. “The characteristics tend to include crying, physical tantrums, illness and overt signs of nervousness and fear.” Children with separation anxiety may go to great lengths to not have to attend school, including faking or embellishing illness.

Your own anxiety may be influencing your child

“Like it or not anxiety is contagious,” says Sherianna Boyle, author of Powered by Me for Educators Pre-K to 12. According to Boyle, research has shown that anxious caregivers may influence the duration of the child’s anxiety. “Parents can check in with themselves by noticing their own internal responses,” she says. “For example, do their eyes widen or bulge when they talk or think about their child? Do their hearts race? If so, bingo, their bodies are in a fight or flight response.” Try to be very aware of your tone and behavior when you’re talking about school and taking your child to school.

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Get help for your child with separation anxiety

Don R. MacMannis, Ph.D. is a psychologist and clinical director of the Family Therapy Institute. He suggests teaming up with your child to soothe separation anxiety in ways that benefit the whole family. MacMannis suggests planning for school together, by creating a shopping and to-do list and celebrating each step toward school readiness. Establish a routine and stick to it, including getting plenty of sleep at night. “As much as possible, scout out the school, teacher or classmates ahead of time so your child can mentally rehearse what things will be like,” says McMannis. “Have them close their eyes at bedtime and imagine how their experience will be fun and positive.” If your child’s separation anxiety persists, talk to your child’s school about ways to address the problem as a team.

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