Separation Anxiety is common amongst young infants & toddlers. This is a part of their development and learning to be independent & relate to other people around. Weeping, clinginess & tantrums are part of this healthy process. However, at times this anxiety & behaviour continues to dwell in children as they grow older. For children in age group of 6 to 12 years, continuance of intense separation anxiety may point out a larger problem of Separation Anxiety Disorder. It could be due to some form of stress, an over protective parent or change in surroundings like change of school or home, death of a loved one or a pet.
Some of the symptoms Separation Anxiety Disorder are
- Nightmares about separation
- Fear of accident/death of a loved one
- Avoid sleeping
- Refuse to go to school
- Complain of sickness like stomach ache or headache
These are 5 basic steps that will guide you as a parent to help your child deal with his separation anxiety.
- Step 1: Teach your child about anxiety
- Step 2: Listen to and respect your child's feelings
- Step 3: Encourage your child to stop seeking reassurance
- Step 4: Build a toolbox with & for your child
- Step 5: Facing Fears
- Step 6: Encourage & strengthen bravery
Anxiety is a normal emotion that tells us when we are in danger. Anxiety becomes a problem when our body tells us that there is danger when there is no real danger. Tell your child that it is normal to sometimes feel anxious when alone or away from parents, and that you will provide him/her some tools to cope with it.
It is helpful for your child to talk about his feelings. Be empathetic & remind your child that he can do it.
Children with separation anxiety often seek excessive reassurance from their parents. They ask questions like: "Are you sure you will be back home by 4pm" or "Are you sure you will come to pick me up after school every day". Parents often find this tiring and frustrating! Tell your child that he or she can only ask you something once.
For children in age group of 6 to 12 years, continuance of intense separation anxiety may point out a larger problem of Separation Anxiety Disorder
The best way to help your child deal with separation anxiety is to give him/her tools that can ease the process. You can teach some relaxing techniques to your child. However, these would be effective only if practised consistently along with your child to feel confident to use them when needed. "Every time we feel anxious, we breathe heavily & hence feel dizzy. Let us keep in mind to breathe slowly & deeply to calm ourselves down as soon as we realise that we are anxious." You can also help the help your child to make some coping cards. These cards would include positive motivating statements like "I can handle being alone. I've done it before."; a reminder that physical symptoms(sweatiness or heavy breathing) are just anxiety; a cue of other coping mechanisms like deep breathing.
Some of the challenges for your child might be sleeping alone in his or her own room, staying at school for the whole day, or reducing reassurance seeking. It is important to prepare your child for the fact that he/she will feel anxious while doing these & that it absolutely normal to feel little anxious. Consistent praise & reward like "Good job!" or favourite dinner on your child's success or attempts is important. Avoid sarcastic comments or criticism.
Your & your child's hard work will show you the result. Keep practicing his/her skills regularly even after your child feels better. Avoid the discouragement if child is unable to use the skills as it is a possibility in extreme anxious situations. It is a reminder to practice the toolbox more
Some of the things that you will need to keep in mind as a parent are:
- Anticipate separation difficulty
- Connect with child's old friends
- Remind your child that he is capable at mastering new places
- Introduce your child to the school and new teachers before the first day
- Let him/her take a small object to school
- Shake of your guilt & anxiety
- Support the child's participation in activities
Be ready for transition points that can cause anxiety for your child, such as going to school or meeting with friends to play.
Make a play date with a friend from previous year.
Say something like, "Remember how scared you were of the park? Now you love it!"
Maybe a note from you or a stuffed animal.
It will make a lot of difference. Keep calm during separation.
Encourage your child to participate in healthy social and physical activities.
You can speak to school authorities to support your child's efforts & difficulties.
- If the school can be compassionate about late arrival, it can give some space to the child & parent to talk before separation.
- Find a place at school where your child can go to reduce anxiety during stressful periods.
- At times of stress at school, a brief phone call with family may reduce separation anxiety.
- An adult's help, whether it is from a teacher or a counselor, may be beneficial for both the child and his /her peers.