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Ask the Experts

How Can I Help My Second-Grader With Separation Anxiety?

By Dr. Stacie Bunning, clinical psychologist

Question:

Please help! My 7-year-old son started second grade three weeks ago. Every morning when we get out of the car he cries and doesn't want to go to school. He says it's because he will miss me and wants to stay at home with me.

I ask him if there's a problem at school or with another child and he says no, but that the day is too long and he'll miss me. He asks me to come back and visit him at lunch time. It breaks my heart to see him get so upset. He's late every day because I can't bring myself to leave him so upset like that.

His teacher says I have to stop visiting at lunch time and that he needs to fight his own battles. What am I doing wrong? How can I help him be more excited about school and his peers? Any advice would be wonderful.

Answer:

First, make sure your son is not being bullied at school and is not having difficulty with a particular teacher or subject. You can ask his teachers about this. Or, is he worried about something or someone at home? If he or someone else was recently ill or injured, or there has been conflict among family members, he may be worried about that. Once you are reasonably sure that there is nothing deeper going on, you can tackle the behavior itself.

It is likely that your son continues to cry and cling to you because those behaviors are working for him. It feels good and soothing to have you close, so he acts to keep you there. In other words, prolonging the time it takes to say good-bye in the morning and visiting him at lunch has reinforced his tearful behaviors. This is not malicious or deviant, by any means. It's simply a negative pattern the two of you have gotten into, and the pattern can be changed.

Start by having a conversation with him on a Saturday, when the next school day is two days away. Tell him exactly what will happen on Monday: You will take him to school, give him a hug and a kiss, and then you will leave. Tell him that you love him and miss him too, but that you are very happy that he gets to go to school, and very excited about all the new friends he is making and the new things he is learning. Emphasize those things, rather than the fact that you will be apart. Tell him you will not be coming to see him at lunch because you have work to do at home (or the office). Decide together on a small token that you can put in his book bag or lunchbox to let him know you are thinking of him. It can be a family photo, a small toy or a note. On Sunday, remind him of your conversation and go through your plan again. Again, emphasize the positives.

The hardest part will be following through with your plan. Be aware that your son may "up the ante" at first, by crying more and clinging tighter in an effort to maintain the status quo. This will pass. Give him a hug, tell him to have a great day, disengage yourself and leave. Remind yourself that he is safe at school and will be taken care of. Have a plan for your own peace of mind: arrange to call a trusted friend, get a cup of coffee or listen to a favorite CD. Resist the urge to visit him at lunch, and trust that school personnel would contact you if he were hurt or ill.

After school, encourage your son to tell you two or three good things that happened at school that day. Do this daily until it becomes a habit. Finally, arrange some weekend get-togethers for him with peers from his school. The more time he spends with his classmates, the more he will look forward to seeing them at school.


Dr. Stacie Bunning is a licensed clinical psychologist in the St. Louis area. She has worked with children, adolescents, and their families in a variety of clinical settings for 20 years. Bunning also teaches courses in child psychology, adolescent psychology, and human development at Maryville University in St. Louis.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

03/24/2011:
"My 2-year-old daughter started school. She has the same crying issue going on for 2 months. One day I observed her in class. She feels fearful when teacher leaves her, she is fearful when one of her classmates approaches her, she is very much talkative & social every where at home, at park, any social event. I need help. How can she cope with her new environment? Her school made changes in her class. Initially she was with a different teacher with 14 kids, she felt overwhelmed with a crowd, so she is made to stay back with morning welcoming teacher, where she's involved with 3 kids only, but still she is crying on & off, never shows happy face, whereas she is very cheerful, fun loving kid at home & everywhere I am with her. I don't know what should I do? I was thinking take her out from school start over next August when she's 2.5 years old and involve her in other activity like library classes for toddler & other social kids events."
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