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The first day of school was no big deal for Ashley and her three-year-old son, Anderson. He was excited to go and ready to learn.

“Then, about two weeks into the year, something changed,” Ashley said. “Seemingly out of nowhere he started being very tearful when either of us would leave. He wanted to create elaborate ways to say goodbye and extend our time together.”

Melanie’s son is now in middle school, but she still remembers how fearful he was in the first days heading into the classroom.

“He started preschool at two-years-old and would cry for the entire two hours, run for the door clinging onto me then scream when I left the room,” she remembered.

Melanie and Ashley are hardly alone in their experiences. Parents from all walks of life, with children of all ages, have had to deal with separation anxiety as the school bell rings.

“The prevalence of childhood separation anxiety disorder has been estimated to occur in about 3-4% of the population,” said Sandra Whitehouse, Ph.D., director of psychology at the University of Utah Neuropsychiatric Institute. “However, probably many more children will, from time to time, seem very anxious about separation, for a variety of reasons. Thus I think that most parents can relate to these stories.”

“Separation anxiety can begin at around 8-9 months, the time of object permanence — or the ability to remember objects and specific people who are not present — but tends to peak later,” Whitehouse continued. “There can also be upsurges during certain time periods, and separation anxiety can be triggered by certain events, like starting daycare or preschool.”

The anxiety may manifest in ways parents don’t expect, including what is known as functional stomach pain.

“There is real pain with no medical causes, which functions to provide an excuse for the child to miss school,” said Whitehouse.

Children might develop a number of other somatic issues ranging from headaches to fainting spells, or in extreme cases, pseudoseizures.

“As long as medical causes are ruled out, kids should go to school,” Whitehouse said. “Otherwise, the ‘illness’ can become very reinforcing and the child develops a pattern of avoidance based on ‘illness’ that is not medically supported.”

Understanding the reasons and symptoms of separation anxiety is one thing — dealing with it is another. Some parents may try to pull a disappearing act, figuring if their child doesn’t see them leave, they won’t get upset. Melanie will tell you that will not work.

“That was a surefire way to escalate the anxiety,” she said. “It was better to say a brief goodbye, give him a hug and kiss then leave quickly.”

Ashley also warns against trying to bargain your way into a good-bye. “Trying to reason with him or appease his concerns — like saying goodbye a special way out the window — just delayed the inevitable,” she said. “He was much happier the sooner I left.”

Whitehouse says it is common for parents to try tactics like these that fail despite their best intentions.

“I don’t know a parent, myself included in this group, who has not forgotten a step in such a routine, and had the whole thing backfire,” she said.

Both Melanie and Ashley reached a turning point when they discovered their greatest ally in the separation anxiety battle had been nearby all along — the teacher.

“Although parents ‘know their kids best,’ the teacher knew my son was fine moments after my departure,” Ashley said. “Following her example was the most productive because she had to manage his behavior the rest of the morning, not me.”

“Probably both wished they had approached the teachers sooner for information and reassurance,” Whitehouse said. “I think that is sometimes difficult to do — your child might seem very upset around your departure and eager for your attention when you return, which doesn’t allow for opportune times to sit down to talk with a busy teacher.”

Instead, it may be possible to meet with the teacher outside of class time, or schedule a time to talk on the phone.

By showing the child there is no reason to feel anxious and that parents and teachers are on the “same team” parents give the message that school is a positive experience, even if they aren’t there. Other ways to make the transition easier could include scheduling a visit to the school before the actual start of classes and teaching your child strategies to manage anxiety.

“Belly breathing and positive self-talk are great coping mechanisms,” Whitehouse said. “You could also teach your child to use stretching or yoga, so that they develop a sense that they can self-sooth and manage their own distress.”

It is also important that parents don’t internalize the anxiety themselves. That may make the situation worse.

“Take care of yourself, try to appear calm, show that you are managing your own anxiety, as the child cues from you,” says Whitehouse.

Melanie says she can relate to that.

“I was usually very stressed about all the crying and found that if I stuck around and tried to spy on him it only escalated my own anxiety,” she said.

Of course, there are times when separation anxiety may be a sign of a larger issue — like bullying. Whitehouse says the best way to discern if an underlying issue is causing the anxiety is to keep the lines of communication open with your child.

“This can be a nighttime routine of ‘tell me about your day, the best parts and the hard parts,’” she said. “If there is suspicion that something traumatic is going on, it is important to consult with a professional like a psychologist, psychiatrist or counselor.”

Above all else, parents need to remember that they are not alone and that eventually the anxiety will pass.

“I tried not to make a huge deal out of leaving and returning in hopes it would stabilize the drama & eventually it did,” says Melanie. “He also obviously gained more maturity and self-reliance.”