You’ve been preparing for this moment for months. You bought a backpack that was bigger than your child and stocked it with all the school supplies they would need for a successful first day of school. Your little one is excited and so are you — or so you thought. As the clock counts down on the night before your kid embarks on their academic journey, you start feeling a wave of panic. If you’re getting angsty, this is how to handle your own anxiety when your child goes to school.
It’s such a major milestone when your child becomes a kindergartner. Not only will they get to learn their basic reading, writing, and math skills, but they’ll socialize and make new friends. What’s not to love? Well, a lot, especially if you feel like you’re losing your little buddy. “Remember that it is healthy for your child to go to school because they need to grow and learn,” says Heather Ackley, MSW, a therapist and the executive director at New Hope Parenting Solutions. “It’s also new exposure for them so they can learn to handle different situations that you can’t create at home.” But as much as you know that it’s good for them to start school, it can make you weepy and wistful. Here’s how to cope.
Be Prepared For The Separation
It can be hard to see your child off to school, especially if you’ve spent almost every day with them. And while you might have thought you’d relish a good long break, it’s actually breaking your heart to be apart from them. “You should prepare for your own withdrawal, especially if you’re an at-home parent,” advises Carl Grody, LISW-S, a licensed social worker. “Hanging out with young children takes a lot of time and energy, and you’ll find that you miss it more than you anticipated.” You might find yourself watching Bluey all by yourself — and laughing hysterically at the “Unicorse” episode (and frankly, no one could blame you). Still, even if you repeat routines that you had with your child while they were home — like serving up a snack at a certain time — it’s perfectly fine to help you adjust to your newfound alone time.
Fear of the unknown is a very real thing, but when it comes to your child starting school, it doesn’t have to be. Arming yourself with information can take away the trepidation you might be feeling. “Make sure to meet the teacher ahead of time,” advises Ackley. “Knowing who your child is with during the day will offer comfort to the parent.” Most schools offer an Open House or a meet-and-greet with teachers right before school starts, so try to attend that meeting with your child. If your schedule allows it, signing up to be a room parent is another option to still feel connected to your child.
“If you work full time, make sure to let the teacher know you’d still like to be involved,” adds Ackley. “There are also after school activities like school parties that you might be able to volunteer at or you could check into being a volunteer for a field trip here and there.” You can also search the school’s website to get information on everything from school bus schedules to even what your child might be eating for lunch that day.
Start A New Tradition
If you’ve ever scrolled on social media right around the time parents are sending their kids to school, you’ve surely seen images of kids holding “First Day Of School!” signs. So think of a fun activity that you can do to celebrate their big day that you can look forward to each year. But don’t leave yourself out, either: think of something that you’d like to do that you couldn’t accomplish with a clingy kiddo in tow. Maybe you can schedule a salon appointment or having an uninterrupted lunch with your friend. The point is to find something fun for you to look forward to as well.
If you’ve ever heard the expression, “Fake it until you make it,” this can be applied to your child going off to kindergarten, too. Although you might be secretly dreading the separation, it’s important to put on a brave face — even if you might not feel it…yet. “Kindergarten is a huge transition time for a child and a parent and represents important separation opportunities — ones in which the child can feel successful and independent or terrified and a failure,” explains Shuli Sandler Psy.D., a licensed psychologist. “The parent can set the tone for this experience by supporting the child’s independence but also being there to reassure the child when they become frightened and prepare them for what is to come.”
Thing is, if you’re stressed out, your child will sense it, too. “Children sense when their parents have anxiety or concerns,” says Anastasia Gavalas, MS, SDA, an educational specialist and founder of Wing It Project. “Parents who don’t have a positive or confident approach to transitions or new experiences for their children are more likely to have children who have some hesitations.” That’s why learning how to handle your own anxiety when your child goes to school.
Sure, you might be stressed about not having your shopping buddy to do those Starbucks runs with you anymore, but you can still get your Java Chip Frappuccino. In fact, you need to, according to Stacy M. Stefaniak Luther, Psy.D., LPC, a doctor of psychology and a licensed professional counselor. “Parents find that a child starting kindergarten is an emotional transition for them as it is one sign their child is growing up,” she says. “To help parents, it’s important to remember self-care.” That might mean taking time to appreciate, er, all the extra time you’ll now have. It might mean being able to pee in peace, or being able to onramp back into the workforce if you were a stay-at-home parent.
Ask Yourself Why You’re Upset
Some parents weep when their child boards the school bus for the first time — and others are so excited that they celebrate in the streets. Still, if you’re struggling to accept the separation, you might have to do a deep dive to discover what’s fueling your own anxiety.
“You should spend some time to self-reflect on the specifics of your stress,” suggests Lindsay Ford, a certified positive discipline parenting coach. “The more specific you can be at identifying the cause, the more likely it is not to feel overwhelming or unmanageable.”
For example, reflect on your own school experiences. Were they positive or negative? That might be the source of your stress. “Often times, our own fears for our children going to school are rooted in our own childhood experiences,” continues Ford. “If you catch glimpses of your childhood memories fluttering through your head, pay attention— they’re important.” Working on your own healing or speaking to a therapist can help you address those inner wounds so that you can be fully present for your child.
Practice Positive Thoughts
It’s easy to ruminate about everything that can possibly go wrong when your child steps into school for the first day. But what about everything that will probably go right? If you spot yourself starting to spiral, stop that negative self-talk, says Ackley. “Start to notice your self-talk and how it’s making you feel,” she says. “Thoughts affect feelings, so is there a way you can phrase the self-talk to feel a little bit better?” For example, if you’re concerned that your kid might not make friends, you can say something like, “I’m worried that they might not make friends right away, but I do know that they play really well with the child up the street, so I know that it will be okay.” The goal isn’t to say, “My child will make tons of friends!” but to rather acknowledge your concern and be reasonable (and positive) so that you can allay your worries. This simple shift can be calming while still offering affirmation.
It’s normal to have some trepidation about your child starting school. But you don’t want your worries to adversely affect your kid or diminish their own joy about school. Try to tackle what’s really bothering you so that you can allow yourself to truly enjoy this meaningful moment in your family’s life.