Pop quiz: Who's more nervous about starting school this year, you or your child? If it's you, "it's a very normal response to have," says Matthew Stevenson, LSW, a child and family therapist in Philadelphia. We asked him how parents can send their little ones off to school without letting their nerves take over.
Why does this anxiety happen?
It usually happens near the first couple times that a parent leaves their child even alone for a couple hours. It's a natural thing to be worried about the person that you brought into the world, that you're responsible for, [if you're not] there when you are there usually. Particularly the stay-at-home parents, for them to be with this person 24/7 for five years of life and then to have them go away, that can cause a lot of stress. And it's a very normal thing to experience that stress. They're worried about their kid because they know they can keep their kid safe. They've been doing it for five years, and now they're giving that responsibility to somebody else. It's hard to let go of that control. Where it can potentially become a problem is if that stress is being picked up by the child.
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How can parents feel better?
Acknowledge it. The parent needs to realize that this is something they're concerned about -- that's Step 1. Once they're able to acknowledge that, understand that it's a pretty normal anxiety to have. Step 2 is that it's important for them to realize that they need to let their child go. That's part of the growth of their child, to have that independence and be able to function and do well without having the parent present all the time. Part of being a good parent is having your child thrive when you're not around. Then once you are able to let your child go to school, it's important to keep yourself occupied during those times. Have activities, do errands that are a lot easier to do without a child. Join classes, go to the gym -- anything that would distract you so before you know it, it's time to pick up your child.
When is this a problem that needs some extra help?
If the parent is going to the school to watch their kid at recess, something that like that would be not healthy. I think calling the school multiple times during the day to make sure that their child is OK, that would not be healthy. Showing that you're so upset, and your child picks up on that and then doesn't want to go to school, that's where it really [is an issue]. If you're able to hide your anxiety from your child, and they still enjoy going to school, it's not as much of a problem. But if it's affecting the entire family, then it's probably good to seek help from a therapist at that point.