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Mental wellness

September 01, 2017

Beating those first-day-of-school blues

The first day of school or daycare can be a stressful, tearful time for your kids — and for you. These strategies may ease your separation anxiety.

Nicolle Wiseman remembers the first morning she took her daughter to the corner to wait for the big yellow bus. It was the start of a new school year — and a new experience for the Wiseman family. Five-year-old Sophia was starting kindergarten and riding the bus for the first time with minimal adult supervision. With a mix of excitement and anxiety (accompanied by a few tears), Wiseman bid her little one adieu and worried about how she would cope with her daughter entering a new environment filled with unfamiliar people.

“I had nurtured her around the clock since she was born,” says Wiseman, a financial services representative and mother of two. “How could anyone else know how to take care of her like I did?"

The concern is all too familiar, especially at the beginning of the school year, says Diana Mancuso, a teacher, mother, and blogger at Toronto Teacher Mom.

"One of the main reasons a parent may feel this way is fear of the unknown," says Mancuso. “What if my child misses me and starts to cry? What happens if she gets hurt? Will she make any new friends or will she be left to play on her own? A parent may feel even more nervous if the child has spent most of the summer at home playing alone or just with family members."

We typically hear about children experiencing feelings of stress and anxiety when they’re separated from a parent, but they aren’t the only ones who can feel unsettled. Parents can experience separation anxiety, too. Feelings of sadness, fear and guilt can intensify when little Emma attends her first day of school or daycare, Jacob goes off on his first overnight stay with Grandma and Grandpa, or even when Vijay leaves home to attend university. Even circumstances around arranging custody and visitation can sometimes increase parents’ concern about how their children will adjust to change.

What causes parental separation anxiety?

Becoming a new parent is a significant life event that changes the way you understand yourself, says Irene Barrett, a psychologist with Blomidon Place, an interagency counselling service for children, youth and families in Newfoundland.

"Questions like 'Will I be a good parent?' and 'What kind of parent will I be?' are commonly asked," says Barrett. "Parents sometimes compare themselves to how they were raised, which can stir up some emotional responses."

Other factors such as sleep deprivation, birth-related health issues, financial stress and changes in daily living habits also come into play, says Barrett. It’s a lot to process in such a short period of time. "Once parents establish their ‘sailor’s legs’ amongst all of these adjustments, they then are faced with choosing a childcare provider. If you don’t know your childcare provider personally, developing trust and supporting your child to develop trust with the caregiver can be anxiety-provoking."

The good news is that experts say separation anxiety is generally short-lived if parents are willing to adapt to new situations in an environment that is deemed happy and safe.

If you find yourself struggling with separation anxiety, consider these coping strategies:

  • Accept it as normal. Naturally, a certain degree of discomfort is expected when you part ways with your child — it's a healthy sign of attachment. Don't feel embarrassed; accept it as a natural part of those parenting instincts that help you make good decisions for your family.
  • Set up gradual transitions. It's inevitable that your child may cling, cry or have a temper tantrum when introduced to a new setting that excludes Mommy and Daddy. If you can’t bear the thought of leaving your child behind, start by gradually increasing the time you spend away (whether sitting in another room, going for a 20-minute walk or taking a short trip to the grocery store), while leaving him or her in reliable care. There should also be an element of consistency in your arrangements — try to line up the same caregiver so that you become familiar and are happy with the level of care your child is receiving.
  • Preparation and routine are critical. It can be a challenge, but with a little planning, you can make the transition simple and stress-free. At back-to-school time, begin by gradually adjusting your schedule in the weeks leading up to the big day, suggests Mancuso. “If you start to slowly adjust the bedtime routines earlier on, there will be less fuss once school starts." She also points out that parents can minimize their jitters by holding their child's hand while at school, staying with their child until the bell rings or speaking with the teacher beforehand to address any fears or concerns.
  • Be positive. Although it’s difficult, it’s important for you to be positive with your child about embarking on a new experience. "Coping with your own anxiety before introducing your child into the situation would be ideal," says Barrett. Children have an amazing ability to pick up their parents’ worry or anxiety, so try not to share these feelings with them.
  • Talk about it. This doesn’t mean you can’t show your feelings — you might like to share them with your partner, a friend or a family member who can give you some support during this emotional time. "Finding other parents who have gone through the experience and can provide helpful advice can be beneficial," says Barrett.
  • Take time for yourself. We hear it over and over: When we meet our own needs for rest, good health and mental stimulation, we take better care of our kids. As parents, we become so involved with juggling our day-to-day responsibilities that we can fail to give to ourselves uninterrupted "me" time to recharge our batteries. By all means, reclaim your life — take that well-deserved nap, go on a “date” with your partner, or grab lunch with a few friends. You deserve it! Basic self-care is especially vital if you have difficulties with anxiety; Barrett recommends deep breathing, exercise, positive self-talk and listening to music.
  • Get professional help. If you feel that your separation anxiety is not subsiding but is becoming a greater issue, talk to your physician or a mental health professional who can recommend additional coping strategies or treatments.

Now that your little one is in school, it’s not too early to start saving for college or university, with a registered education savings plan (RESP). For an idea of how much higher education might cost for your son or daughter, try our RESP calculator.

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