Empower Through Separation Anxiety

Kelly Curtis - Professional speaker, writer and counselor*** Monthly Feature Column ***

Positively Speaking
Building Assets in your Kids

by Kelly Curtis, M.S., author of Empowering Youth: How to Encourage Young Leaders to Do Great Things.

I’ve watched the scenario so many times – a youngster that melts into a wail as he gets dropped off at school or daycare for the first time. It’s difficult to witness, and even more difficult when you’re the parent who’s “inflicting” the trauma by leaving him there.

Separation anxiety can be a serious issue for children, but typically it’s a normal part of development. Preschoolers with a healthy attachment to loved ones often demonstrate a reluctance to be separated from their parents. In many cases, it stops within 3-4 minutes after the parent leaves.

Often the key is to help your young child find a way to feel confident in him or herself, and learn how to integrate into new surroundings.

Search Institute has identified Empowerment as one of the 40 Developmental Asset categories. Research shows these are characteristics of healthy, caring, resilient kids. The more assets youth have, the more likely they’ll resist risky behaviors in the future.

Many factors can reduce the chance your child will develop separation anxiety, including a consistent routine, a low-stress home environment, and gradual introduction to children and adults outside the family unit. But finding ways to empower your child might be the best tool for parents to overcome a normal anxiety problem, during this huge milestone in both your lives.

Here are a few ideas.


Visit the school a few days ahead of time and introduce your child to caregivers before you’ll actually leave him with them. Make initial meeting short and positive.

At home, read picture books about “going to school” to encourage him to ask questions in the days or weeks leading up to the first day of school. Go shopping for school supplies and let him choose the colors he likes best. Prepare for it like it’s an adventure – and something you expect him to feel proud about.


When dropping him at childcare or school, stay positive, give a warm hug and leave. It’s critical you don’t give into your child’s emotional break down — matter-of-factly tell him he’ll be alright. Keep emotions in check as you leave, and if needed, follow up with the teacher later on in the morning, by phone or email. Be aware that your separation anxiety may be what’s causing your child’s.

Asking a family member or close friend to manage the “drop off” may avoid the separation drama completely.


When talking to your child, acknowledge her fears, but don’t let her dwell on them – reframe her thinking toward the positive experiences she has there. Encourage her to take a comfort toy if needed, and to think about what her favorite character, or a “hero” would do in this situation.

Show her the clock so she knows where the hands will be when you’ll return.


Encourage him to talk to family members and friends about the great things he’s learning at school! He can also help to prepare younger family members and friends for the similar anxieties they face.

If the problem doesn’t wane on its own, you and your child may both benefit from counseling to help work through the anxiety. Ask your school counselor for suggestions or a list of therapists in the area.

What has helped you to address separation anxiety in your children?

Thanks for joining in to build assets in your kids! I look forward to seeing you again next month for Positively Speaking.

Kelly Curtis is a Wisconsin school counselor and author of Empowering Youth: How to Encourage Young Leaders to Do Great Things. To read more about Kelly, please visit her Weblog, Pass the Torch or follow her on Twitter.


  1. says

    Julia had a tough struggle with separation anxiety when she started preschool last September. It felt like she would never get past it, but she did.

    It took about 2 months. I helped her gain confidence by reassuring her that I was just waiting in the hallway. She would be able to ask the teacher to hold her up and look out the window of the door to see I was still there. Gradually she stopped asking to look and then after a couple months she didn’t mind that I wasn’t in the hallway anymore.

    A big help was the book “The Kissing Hand”. A couple of our readers here suggested that book and it helped so much.

    By the end of the year, it was hard to remember that she ever had separation anxiety.

  2. says

    Great article- I’m wondering how to help our kids- ages 7 and 11, with going to school- we’re moving, so they’re starting all new, and now taking seperate busses! I’m about nervous for them! Any tips?

  3. says

    Hello Wendy – we moved a couple years ago and our kids were in 3rd and 5th grades at that time. What helped us a lot was to befriend some of our new neighbor kids during the weeks leading up to the first day of school. It was still a big change, but our new good friends made all the difference. Good luck to you!


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