Separation Anxiety

Ask a Child Therapist: Separation anxiety when starting school

In the UK, our children start school at a young age. Unless the local authority has agreed that a child can begin later, all children start school in what is usually known as the Reception class when they are four. In many European countries, children enter the education system when they are six, with more creative and free-play based provisions before that age.

It is really common for children to struggle with separation anxiety when they start school. Separation anxiety is the fear of being away from parents or carers. It is a normal response to a child’s growing awareness of their dependence on the people who care for them, and it signifies their developing understanding of the wider world. 

Children don’t always have the language to express how they feel, so anxiety can show up in many different ways. These can include stomach pains or headaches, trouble sleeping, unexplained outbursts, difficulties concentrating on one thing and clinging to parents and carers. 

Starting school is a big transition for a young child. It often involves being in a new building, having new adults responsible for them, a new group of peers, and learning many new rules. With all these scary new things to navigate, it’s not surprising that children gravitate back to what they know and feel secure with, usually their parents and carers.

The best thing you can do as a parent or carer is address the fears of starting school. If your child can verbalise their feelings, let them talk without interrupting and ensure they know you are listening to them. As we have said, talking can be challenging for younger children, so using images such as emojis, drawings, or stories in books can help them understand what is happening. It can help to use social stories, an idea developed by Carol Gray for autistic children, which can be helpful for all children. Social stories clearly explain what is happening and how a child might feel, so they provide information about what is happening and remove the fear of the unknown.   

Most schools have developed specific guidance and systems for helping children transition into Reception, including parents and carers spending time in the classroom with the child before the actual start date, staggered start dates, and reduced days at the beginning. While this can make life harder for working parents to manage their commitments, it can help to frame this stage as an investment in your child’s long-term happiness at school. Tell the school if your child worries about starting school or being away from you. You won’t be the first family to have had this experience, and they should be able to help. 

While separation anxiety is very normal when starting school, if it persists into the school year or is linked to your child expressing negative emotions about themselves, it’s a good idea to talk to your GP and get some professional guidance. 

A lovely book to help understand what is going on for your child at this crucial age as they start school is Understanding 4-5 Year Olds, by Lesley Maroni.


The key takeaway

Separation anxiety is normal in young children. Encouraging children to express their fears and implementing measures to ease the transition can help.

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