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Separation Anxiety in Middle School
Separation anxiety is common when students first start preschool and elementary school. It’s not that common in middle school, but let’s just say it happens enough for me to write a blog post about it!! Every year I see more and more separation anxiety at the middle school level. Some parents say their child has always had separation anxiety and others say this is the first time they’re seeing signs. It’s not surprising that students suddenly develop anxiety in middle school considering they’re developmentally moving from concrete thinking to abstract thinking. There’s lots of information available online regarding the connection between abstract thinking and anxiety but that’s not something we’re going to dive into today.
Today we’re going to discuss some solutions to help a student with separation anxiety. I’ll provide a plan that includes the parents and school counselor working together to successfully get the child to school.
How can I tell if a student has separation anxiety vs general anxiety??
Parents can definitely seek out a full psychological evaluation but it’s expensive and takes time. I don’t have time for that so as a school counselor I look for these clues:
- Does the student have anxiety all day or just in the mornings as they’re leaving their parents??
- Is the level of anxiety increased on Mondays?? Does it then lessen as the week goes on??
- Does talking about leaving their parents cause anxiety??
- How often is the child left alone (evenings, weekends, summer, etc)??
- Does the family have healthy boundaries and expectations??
- Has a traumatic event happened recently?? To the family, to the student, or even in the news??
Getting to School
- The parents must create a nightly routine and morning routine. Yes, routine is super important for students with anxiety. It lets them know what’s expected and helps ease their anxiety.
- The parents must create a routine for the drive to school. What music/radio station do we listen too? Do we sing on the drive to school? Do we have the child listen to a meditation app on the way? It’s important for the child to be active on the drive to school so they are engaged and not just sitting there worrying about their day.
- The parents must create a goodbye ritual. The goodbye ritual is something that will be done as the parents are dropping the student off each morning. A secret handshake or fist bump or positive quote as they are exiting the car.
- Once the parents have a plan, they need to talk it over with the student and get their input. Once everyone has agreed on the plan, they must stick to it! If the plan needs to be adjusted at any time, then the student must be made aware of the changes in advance. We never want to surprise a student with anxiety or break from an agreed upon plan without warning.
- If there’s time, I suggest the parents practice everything a week or two before school starts. Practice the nightly routine, the morning routine, the drive to school, the goodbye ritual, and walking to the front doors (by themselves). Practice makes perfect! It also let’s the child see that they can be successful!
Once They’ve Arrived at School
- When the parents arrive at the school, they must drive straight to the drop off lane. No parking and having a nice chat before school as this will only increase the students anxiety. Drive straight to the drop off lane. If there’s a less crowded drop off lane (maybe on the side of the building) let’s use that for the time being.
- I recommend the parents drop the student off 2 minutes before school begins. This allows the student to get dropped off and walk immediately to class. No going to the counselor’s office or sitting in their parents’ car worrying about the day. Let’s get straight to class!
- The parents must remain in the car and do their goodbye ritual. The parent must not get out of the car to walk with the student or hug them. It’s goodbye ritual and then drive off. This is going to be the hardest part for all parties involved but it’s important to stick to the plan. If the child refuses to get out of the car, it’s the parents responsibility to physically remove them from the car and place them on the sidewalk (or in the building if you’re concerned the child will run). If this is required, then the parents must be robotic and focus on the task at hand. Get them out of the car, set them down, and drive off. At this point, I sound heartless but I promise you I’m not. If the parent starts holding the child and comforting them, then this will become a daily expectation and the anxiety will only continue. This isn’t something we want to do everyday, it’s absolutely unbearable watching the child fall apart. So stick to the plan and I promise this phase won’t last long!
- Phase One: The student will be dropped off in the regular drop off lane and the counselor/adult will meet the student at the car door.
- Phase Two: The student will be dropped off in the regular drop off lane and the counselor/adult will meet the student about 50-100 feet away. Be sure to find a good meeting point and show the student beforehand. I try to ensure that the meeting point is visible from the drop off lane. I want the student to see my face and know that I’m there for them as soon as they get out of the car. If they can’t see me from the car, then they may not get out of the car.
- Phase Three: The student will be dropped off in the regular drop off lane and the counselor/adult will meet the student about 100-150 feet away.
- Phase Four: Hopefully by now the student is meeting the counselor in the building. They’re going to keep meeting further and further away from the drop off lane until they’re meeting outside of the student’s first period. They’ll meet outside of the first period for a while and then they should be done!
- It’s best to change the counselor-student meeting location midweek. Monday’s are always the hardest so you never want to change a location on a Monday.
- It’s imperative that the school counselor is ALWAYS on time!! The school counselor has to be reliable!! During the first week or two of meeting, the school counselor should introduce the student to the “backup” people. The “backup” people are just that, backup in case the school counselor is sick and can’t make it. You don’t want the student to be left alone or to feel like the plan is unreliable so it’s extremely important to have a backup plan and to let the student know about the plan.
- First things first, the parents need to seek counseling for the student (from a counselor in the community). The student is going to need to address the underlying issue that’s causing anxiety and learn some good coping skills. The counselor will also need to provide guidance to the family in how to help the child cope with their anxiety.
- I recommend parents start leaving their student at home alone on a regular basis. Every time the parents go to the store, leave the student at home alone. These short periods of time alone will teach the student some independence, build their self confidence, and help them cope with their parents being gone for shorts amount of time.
- The parents and counselor should have a key phrase such as “Possible verse Probable?” I heard this from a coworker and I love it!! Is it possible your fears will happen?? Yes it’s possible a meteor could hit the Earth today, but is it probable? If everyone is using the same phrase, it’ll make it easier for the student to start saying it to themselves.
- It’s important for the adults to acknowledge the student’s feelings while still maintaining expectations. Don’t completely ignore the child’s fears/anxiety but don’t spend hours discussing it either (this is the community counselor’s job).
- Eventually the student should be encouraged to ride the bus. The bus is consistent and predictable which definitely helps with the morning routine. Once things are going smoothly with the parent drop off, give the bus a try. Talk it over beforehand, make a plan, and make sure they have a friend they can sit next too. The first day/week they’re going to come home and tell the parents that they don’t like riding the bus…but stick with it. No one likes change but in the end it’ll be good for them.
- Remember that students normally regress after an extended amount of time at home. So after a 3 day weekend, spring break, Christmas break, etc. the child will probably struggle a little bit. Just be prepared for this small setback but don’t let the student regress completely. You can make a plan for that one day or see if they can stick to the plan without modifications.
- As a very last resort, the school counselor can set up a time throughout the day for the student to call their parents. I say a very last resort because we’re trying to learn healthy boundaries and calling every day is not a healthy boundary. But I know to reach our goal we need baby steps. If you decide to add this to the student’s plan, then you need to create a phone plan with clear expectation for the student: how will the phone call be made (cell or front office), how many times a day/week can the student call, how long can the call last, and is the call beneficial to the student?? If the call only upsets the student afterwards, then it’s not beneficial. I’ve seen this work a few times, most of the time its’ not needed. I had a student who was really struggling, so we gave them 2 phone passes to use throughout the week. This let the student know that they could reach out if they needed too, but they had to choose their time wisely. They didn’t want to “waste” a pass unless they really needed to call. After a few weeks, we stopped giving them the passes because they realized they didn’t need to call.
I know the plan above says it’ll take multiple weeks to get the child adjusted but it doesn’t always take that long. Sometimes it takes a week and other times it can take 6 weeks. It just depends on the child but stick with it!!
Update November 2020: Unfortunately I no longer blog about my counseling adventures/experiences. However, I know these posts are a huge resource to others so I’ve kept all of my old counseling posts on this page for your use. Enjoy!!