How to Manage First Day Separation Anxiety

Managing Separation Anxiety

The first day of school is an important milestone for both children and parents and is often met with excitement and delight. It’s also natural for children (and parents) to feel anxious about saying goodbye, and tears and tantrums at school drop-off time are not uncommon. You may want to consider seeking parent counselling to assist with these transitions.

For children, not knowing what to expect is often what drives their anxiety. They have to adjust to a new environment with new people, routines, and rules. Parents are often anxious about the feeling that they are abandoning their child and may struggle coming to terms with the fact that their little one is growing up and becoming more independent. Parents’ own anxiety about their child beginning school can also rub off on their children.


Ideas to make your child’s transition to school as smooth as possible

Practice separating from your child before the big day

If your child is not used to separating from you, practice spending time apart gradually. For example, start by leaving them with a relative or familiar friend for a few hours and build up to a full day. Be sure to reward them with plenty of praise for how proud you are for their efforts. You can also use a reward chart where your child earns a sticker for each day attended at school without too much resistance and they earn a special reward when they are no longer fearful of separating to go to school.

Prepare your child for what to expect and make it a special day to look forward to

The way you talk to your child about starting school will influence how they feel about it. If you appear worried or nervous they will pick up on this and may feel anxious too. Try to reduce the uncertainty by starting to talk about it in the weeks before school starts. Tell your child what will happen in the morning and tell them how excited you are for the fun they are going to have. You can involve your child in the preparation process by making an excursion to pick out school supplies, a new lunchbox or school bag for their first day.

Plan a way to manage your own anxiety

It’s normal for parents to feel anxious and emotional on the first day of school, however, try to avoid conveying this to your child so they don’t become emotional too. Think of what you will say when you leave your child and what you will tell yourself to manage your feelings.

Find some friends

If your child doesn’t know anyone in their class try to arrange some play dates beforehand with one or two of the other children. Your child will feel more confident on their first day if there are some familiar faces in the crowd. You can also remind them that they will see their friends if they feel worried about their first day.

Plan the pick up location and be on time

This is particularly important in the first week of school. You want your child to trust that you will pick them up where and when you said that you would. When you pick them up remind them that you picked them up just as you promised you would.

Pack a familiar object

If your child is nervous about starting school something that reminds them of home, such as favourite toy, photos of the family, beloved book, drink bottle filled with a favourite drink or lunch box with a special treat can be comforting. Most children outgrow the need for these items and they can be phased out gradually.

Don’t prolong the goodbyes

This is perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind at school drop-off to minimise tears and clinginess from your child. Appear confident, happy, and calm at drop-off and leave even if your child is crying. Try to set them up with an activity, say good bye, give one last hug, and leave when you say you will. If you stay with your child for too long you will send the message that they are not safe or able to cope on their own.

Celebrate their first day

Tell your child how proud you are of them for bravely completing their first day of school. You may also want to plan a special treat to look forward to, like cooking their favourite meal for dinner or going for ice-cream.

Don’t criticise your child if they are having difficulty separating

If your child is having difficulty separating avoid criticising, being negative, or comparing your child to others – e.g., don’t say things like “don’t be a cry baby” or “James didn’t cry when his mum left”. Try to be empathic toward your child’s feelings but express confidence in their ability to stay at school without you.

Most children outgrow separation anxiety. However, if your child’s problem separating persists for more than four weeks, causes them significant distress, or interferes with your child’s ability to get on with daily life, your child may benefit from psychological therapy.

We offer remote consultation or if you are in Brisbane, Redland or Logan City book an in-person appointment with our child psychologist


AUTHOR: Danielle Bargh is a registered Psychologist with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency and is completing a combined Doctorate of Clinical Psychology and Masters of Science at the University of Sydney. She holds an Honours degree in Psychological Science from the University of Queensland.

Danielle has experience working with children, adolescents, and adults in a range of settings, including community, hospital, and university clinics. She has diverse clinical interests and has worked with a range of mental health difficulties including anxiety and anxiety disorders, mood difficulties and depression, emotion-regulation difficulties, and adjustment to HIV diagnosis. She also has an interest in working with individuals who suffer from stress or experience difficulties with procrastination or perfectionism.


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