When Kids Have Separation Anxiety at School Drop-Off: Is It Normal?

worried boy in school

By the time your kids are in school, you probably assume that they're well beyond clinging to your leg for dear life. Not so fast: even if your child has been fine parting ways with you for years, that's no guarantee that separation anxiety won't rear its head again, especially when you're dropping them off at school. And if your child is begging you to take him home one morning, it can leave you feeling embarrassed and baffled about what's going on.


But rest assured you're hardly alone.

"Separation anxiety is a normal developmental stage from about 8 months until 2 years -- but even if children have successfully passed through this stage, they may regress later on during times of stress, such as school," says Theodote Pontikes, MD, a pediatric psychiatrist at Loyola University Health System. "In the US, separation anxiety affects about 4 to 5 percent of children ages 7 to 11 years."

The reasons for it vary widely depending on what, exactly, is distressing your child: Are they floundering in math? Are they getting teased at recess? 

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As you try to root out the cause, don't just tell your child that their fears are unfounded and that everything will be okay.

"A parent continuing to simply assure their child that everything will be alright may actually increase a child's fears, especially if the child feels the parent doesn't 'get' what the danger is," warns Carol Hinman, PhD, a pediatric counselor in Iowa.

A better tactic? Try to get a feel for what is bothering your child. Ask questions such as: "If you could stay with me for part of the day and go to school for part of the day, which part of the day would you go to school?" Also be sure to touch base with your child's primary teacher to suss out how he's doing in various classes. Ask questions such as, "Are there certain times when he's more withdrawn or acts out more than usual?" These questions may help you home in on what your child is trying to avoid.

Another possibility is that the problem lies at home -- with the loss of a pet or loved one or marital strife. "Kids may be worried [about] what happens to mom or dad when they are away," says Hinman. "A threat to a child's caregiver is often perceived as more serious than a threat to the child."

Once you find the cause behind your child's separation anxiety, address it to see if this can ease his concerns. If he's struggling in a certain subject, for instance, spend extra time doing his homework with him to instill more confidence. Or if your child's fears are rooted in something going on at home, do your best to assure your child that you will always be there for him.

If you can't get to the bottom of what's behind your child's separation anxiety or it seems truly generalized and not tied to anything specific, consider seeking the help of a child counselor or therapist. While you can certainly contact the school counselor if one exists, a professional outside of school may have a less biased perspective and also help your child feel more comfortable opening up without fears of it having repercussions at school.

Did your child ever suffer separation anxiety at school drop-off -- and what do you think the reason might be?


Image © Dann Tardif/LWA/Corbis

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