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February 2, 2015

Separation Anxiety: How to manage school anxiety

The morning blues

I’ve had quite a few kids in my office, as of late, struggling with separation anxiety and having a hard time getting to school. Maybe you’ve had a similar experience struggling through the morning routine, with your child fussing and wanting to stay home. I hope your kids have navigated this transition without undue difficulty. However, my kiddo, Nico, was not so fortunate. Much to his chagrin, when he started Kindergarten in public school and faced the separation process; well, it didn’t go so well. Our mornings were replete with his crying, clinging to his mother’s leg, making a run for it, and exclaiming his desire to “skip” Kindergarten.

Heal thyself

Of course, as a child psychologist, I’ve had to deal with this problem countless times. I knew what to do; but it sure can be tough to do it. How hard is it to see your child suffer? It’s our first impulse to ‘do something’, and give-in, to remedy the problem and see our child smile again, as quickly as possible.


It was therefore tempting to simply send my son back to his small, nurturing private school with only a handful of classmates. I’ve talked to parents who have been equally tempted to home or cyber-school. I appreciate, now more than ever, their inclination to do so. It’s tortuous to see our kids struggle.

What to do?

The answer was to compel Nico to face his fears. Despite the impulse to do otherwise and simply wait (hope) for maturity, there was no guarantee that time would solve this problem. I reminded myself of having worked with High School students who continued to struggle with school refusal due to anxiety. So, rather than capitulate, we remained firm and provided some accommodations. Nico was given ongoing encouragement, calming strategies, was driven to school (at first), the Guidance Counselor met him to walk to class, and he was given extra attention from the classroom teacher. We faded these strategies and he improved over the course of the year. However, even to this day, at times he’s less than thrilled about attending school, but it’s nothing like it used to be.

One size fits all?

The motto for anxiety disorders is ‘face your fears’; and it’s the most effective avenue for overcoming such problems. However, the key question is how, when, and how much fear we face at any given time. Sometimes we need to face the fear all at once; but sometimes gradually. It all depends on the severity of the fear, and the child’s response to ‘facing’ the fear. Nevertheless, either way, the goal is always a progressive and unrelenting pursuit of facing the fear.

Future Anxiety?

Children who struggle with separation anxiety tend, by their very nature, to be more sensitive, anxious, and uptight about other things, and such often carries-on throughout life. However, while excessive anxiety may surface now and then, the key is to teach coping strategies to learn how to manage the fear so that they control it, rather than the anxiety controlling them; and this learning can be effectively used for the rest of their lives.

I trust you’ll find this post to be helpful, and please don’t hesitate to email me about any ongoing anxiety problems. God bless and happy separating.

Written by Dr. John Carosso

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