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Sibling Separation Anxiety: Back to School Is Hard on Little Sister, Too.

My son has been in kindergarten for a month now and he’s doing just fine. He has made some new friends, comes home excited about the library books he takes out, and tells me all about playing soccer on the playground with his classmates. However, I have not completely adjusted to our new experience and schedule. I know my two-year-old daughter who I stay home with hasn’t, either.

I think she has a moderate case of what the internet calls ‘sibling separation anxiety’.

Transitions can be hard for everyone. That is no secret. Even when the transition is a positive one, it can still be difficult. But sometimes, transitions can have a strong impact on the people surrounding the individual going through the change.  

My kids are truly best friends.

Best buddies; no wonder she has sibling separation anxiety

They get along pretty well; they even share more often than not.

My children are so different from each other, but their personalities are complimentary and they tend to get along 80% of the time. They share a bedroom and, in the mornings, they wake up and play together before even bothering to come in our room to ask for anything.

My son has always been our cautious child. He’s not a risk taker whatsoever. My daughter is the opposite; she rises to any challenge and is very persistent. She’s the only person I know who can manage to encourage my son to try anything that seems intimidating to him, often by trying it herself in front of him (even when she isn’t technically supposed to). They bring out the best and worst in each other, but in a good way, and I love that they are so close.

Since school has started we drop my son off right before 8 am every weekday morning. By 8:15, my daughter is already asking me when we can go pick up her brother. When I tell her it isn’t time to pick him up yet, she gets upset. Sometimes she cries, sometimes she whines, and sometimes she throws a huge tantrum. Besides the fact that watching her antics is draining, my heart breaks for her.

Even though her brother attended a full-time, full-day preschool program for the last two years, I’m not sure she remembers. He didn’t go to school this summer like he had the summer before. Therefore, she became very used to his constant presence.

Now she misses her best friend.

She will follow him anywhere. When he leaves, she has sibling separation anxiety.

She will follow him anywhere.

I’ve been trying to keep her busy, assuming she will become accustomed to our new schedule. We go to playgroups, dance class, the library, and grocery shopping. I give her jobs to help me around the house. We play outside on the swingset and go for walks around the neighborhood. I’ve even let her have a little more screen time than I usually do.

Unfortunately, on top of missing her brother, her two-year molars are emerging and she’s been fighting a cold, and she just hasn’t been able to get on a schedule. She has been waking up early more often than usual (before 6 am) and naps are scarce, which doesn’t make any of the sad feelings she experiences when her brother is at school any easier.

I do realize she’s still little; she’s not even three yet. In my mind, I know the more time goes on, the more she will get used to having her brother in school. Her sibling separation anxiety will eventually improve.

But the truth is, every time she goes into sibling separation anxiety mode, I can relate. When she tells me she wants me to go pick him up and it isn’t time, and she gets upset, I sometimes say, “I know, I want him to be home so I can give him a hug, too.”

I can’t blame her for missing him because I miss him too. He is doing just fine as a kindergartener, but I am still in denial that my first baby is almost six years old.

Generally, I also can’t picture in my head how he’s navigating elementary school. His preschool location only had two classrooms, everyone knew everyone else. Having him there for two years created a sense of security for him, but also for me. Somehow, even though his elementary school isn’t large, it’s a lot bigger than his preschool in comparison. I know I need to have more confidence in him. It’s all part of that letting go thing parents have to do eventually. I’m working on it.

While I am managing to deal with my emotions, I want to help my daughter when she is having these sibling separation anxiety episodes. I am trying, but I don’t know if I’m making a difference or not yet. She has wonderful language skills. Due to her age, however, I cannot have deep conversations about feelings with her and expect her to understand.

I’ve been on the internet, looking for suggestions about how I can help my daughter understand her brother’s absence, and what I could tell her or occupy her with.

The problem is that I’m not finding any tips that are remotely helpful. There are not many suggestions as to how to handle sibling separation anxiety outside from what I am doing.

So, I am trying to think outside the box. Keeping my daughter busy does help, but I cannot keep her running around all day. The fact that her nap schedule has become so erratic is not helping her energy levels or demeanor either.

Here are some ideas that I have come up with. I plan to test them out over the coming weeks if she seems to be having more difficulties with her brother being at school:

  • Make a quick visual schedule for her with four or five events on it. Even if I’m just drawing stick figures and line drawings on the dry erase part of my kids’ easel. 

    The former educator in me wants to get my hands on a color printer and pound out symbols using my favorite symbol-making software and some velcro, but I don’t have that kind of time. I think if I draw a pair of shoes for dance, a couple of blocks for playgroup, a sandwich to symbolize lunch, a grocery cart for shopping, she will be able to figure it all out if I use the same symbols for particular activities enough times. We can erase it as we go along and maybe I’ll tape a picture of her brother to the bottom of our daily list. This way she will be able to see that we still have things to do before we get him. I just have to hope she doesn’t erase or cross out everything on the list before we accomplish it.

    A list I made to outline the day's activities so my daughter can see when we are getting her brother.

    My art isn’t the greatest, but it doesn’t have to be. The important thing is that she can see that there are things to do before we get her brother.

  • Use a timer.

    I have not figured out the exact logistics of this yet. Maybe the last hour before we need to leave to pick up her brother, we can set a timer or alarm together, on my phone, the computer, or the microwave. This may help her anticipate when the time is getting close to having him back.

  • Try not to get too frustrated when she is upset. Keep giving her hugs. 

    This seems simple, but sometimes after she has melted down two or three times, I find it easy to run out of patience. Like I mentioned before, I am feeling the same sense of loss and anxiety even if I have a more mature coping mechanism. I just have to keep reminding myself of this.

We will see how things go and if any of these strategies work. At the same time, I’ll work on my own ‘letting go’ parenting skills. Time goes so fast. Before you know it, it will be me who needs new coping strategies because both of my babies will be away at school.

Have you ever had a child with sibling separation anxiety? What did you try to help your little one feel better?

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