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What will I do now? My baby is off to school!

Empty nest got you down? “Today” contributor Dr. Gail Saltz gives advice to parents on how to cope with separation anxiety.
/ Source: TODAY

When your child goes off to school in September – whether they're starting nursery school, first grade, or even if they're going off to college – you may be feeling sad, nervous and suffering from parental separation anxiety. Dr. Gail Saltz, a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital, was invited on “Today” to give advice and tips on how parents can deal with it.

Do you already feel like crying just thinking about your child starting school next month? Has it been bothering you all summer just thinking that your “baby” is going to get on that school and out of your life? Whether you are sending your little guy or gal off to nursery school for the first time or your bigger guy or gal off to high school or even college, many parents are pained by their own form of blues and separation anxiety.

Generally speaking, we are very aware of our children's potential for separation anxiety and often think about how to help them with that. What we often overlook is our own anxiety, and the impact that will have on our child.

Separation anxiety is the fear of being separated from your loved one; the fear that you won't be okay while they are away; also a fear you will not be reunited.

It is developmentally normal for a child to go through this, but when a parent becomes anxious about the separation, that anxiety may get transmitted to the child. If it does, the child may presume, "If my parent is scared, there must really be something to be scared about."

It is normal for a parent to feel nervous and sad about new school beginnings. It is a leap in both development and independence when your child begins a new school. Parents often see this as their child moving away from them, and needing them less. They then anticipate the day when their child will truly be an adult and be really independent and separate. Even though intellectually you know this is healthy and good for your child, it still hurts.

It is also hard to leave them in the care of new teachers and other strangers you don't know.

The feeling of separation anxiety is more likely to come up now if you had it when you were a child. You may be partially reliving your own childhood memories and now placing them onto your child. 

Another cause for the anxiety may be guilt. You may be feeling unconscious guilt about the part of you that wants them to go to school, so you can have a break and do other things in life besides caring for them. When you are not fully aware of this guilt, it may cause you to feel you are a bad parent. You feel that you are wishing relief from your child - which you aren't – and that you should be trying to hold onto them more tightly. This only increases your separation anxiety and probably theirs too. 

Realizing these feelings are normal, within limits, is important. There are things you can do ahead of time to get some relief when that day in September comes:

Check out the school beforehand
Seeing where they will be, and meeting some teachers can diminish your anxiety. The known is always less scary than the unknown.

Talk to other parents
Finding out that you are not alone with your feelings is a great source of relief. Plan a parent's coffee to share your sadness.

Start a new hobby
If your child is older, and it's more about sad empty nest, then start a new hobby. Giving "birth" to a new creative endeavor can really be distracting. It can also demonstrate that this is the beginning of an interesting new time in your life.

Sort out your feelingsUnderstanding your true feelings can really help. Figure out if what you are feeling is guilt, anxiety or sadness. Is it more about some ideal that you "should" be with your child all the time? Is it a fear that with your child at school, you will have no role? Understanding what drives the difficult emotion you are experiencing will help. If necessary, seek professional help.
Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to “Today.” Her new book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,”  was recently published by Riverhead Books. For more information, you can visit her Web site,