Separation anxiety occurs in children who are school-aged. A child who has separation anxiety tends to resist going to school or any setting other than home and may have physical symptoms such as stomaches and/or headaches.
Teachers report that even when the child overcomes the resistance to attending school, it takes an inordinate amount of time for the child to focus on school work. Ironically, a child with separation anxiety may be academically proficient despite the resistance to following through with group activity.
Researchers conclude that children who have separation anxiety demonstrate common traits. Some of these personality characteristics/styles are: fear of leaving the caregiver due to worries about the parent rather than fears about the self; dislike of large group settings for fear they are being judged by peers and teachers;
tend to have a few close set of playmates rather than many children with whom they play, and have issues with transitions to new settings. As is easily noted in the list above, many of these qualities are positive ones. Unfortunately, the qualities are limiting the opportunities of the child rather than providing him/her with many more options.
For instance, a child who has the compassion to worry about the care and safety of the parent is a thoughtful and empathetic person. A parent can serve this child by assuring him/her of what he/she will be doing the rest of the time away from the child.
A parent also serves this child by encouraging him/her to channel the concern into recalling a story to tell the parent upon return or drawing the parent a colorful picture that conveys feelings or asking him/her to focus on the favorite subject of the child.
Additionally, making certain that good-byes are relatively short-lived and leaving with a smile so that the child has a reflection that tells him/her that all is well are other ways of assuring confidence. Some parents report that the child is more likely to transition well if the parent greets a playmate of the child before departure.
The greeting sends the message to the child that he/she also can extend a greeting which moves the child away from feelings of grief over what is leaving and moving the child toward socialization.
It should be mentioned that although children who have separartion anxiety tend to fear group settings, their fear is not necessarily a negative trait. For instance, children who prefer smaller numbers of children to larger numbers tend to be more cautious in their speech and activity. They are also more detail oriented rather than global in their understanding of concepts.
Moreover, parents can aid the child who fears large groups by encouraging the child to provide periodic presentations of his/her work. Initially, the presentations should be performed in front of a few intimate family members. Later, as the child gains confidence in presenting a report, he/she can be encouraged to present in front of friends as well as family members.
The goal of this gradual increase in the audience is to provide as much over-rehearsal in presenting as possible so that much of what is to be performed becomes automatic. In this way, the child is learning that a report can be performed despite knocking knees, sweaty palms, and dry mouth, simply because much of the report becomes memorized.
Another tip that can aid a child whose anxiety in front of peers manifests as shaking hands and fingers is to encourage them to not point toward the show-and-tell object but to place the finger directly on the object in order to steady the hand. This technique also puts the audience’s focus upon the object and not on the child’s trembling finger!
Interestingly, the child who prefers a few close friends as opposed to acquainting oneself to many tends to have deeper, more intimate relationships with those in their world. This constriction in numbers can actually mean more resources for the child in that the child will more likely trust these friends with what is innermost in their heart.
This means that the child will less likely shield others from understanding if there is a problem or difficulty in their life. A parent can encourage the rotation of a smaller number of friends to prevent over-dependence upon one child. A parent can rotate the list of children with whom the child is comfortable by having sleepovers, invitations to dinner outings, or movies to a variety of the child’s core of relationships.
To aid transition issues, meaning issues which are problems with adjusting to different settings or acclimating to new tasks, the parent can encourage the child to create lists of things to accomplish or to approach a new problem with a list of what is already known before attempting to tackle it.
List-making affords the child to see the beginning, the middle, or the end of any given task and empowers the child with seeing his/her progress. Some children are visual learners. If your child does not seem to enjoy list writing, encourage them instead to draw a picture of each item rather than looking at crossing off words.
Teachers often cooperate in this exercise, as many write on the chalkboard the adenda for the day. Ask your child if he/she might do the same and cross off each subject as it is completed. Similarly, parents can facilitate good after- school habits by listing on the refrigerator or posterboard what tasks are expected of the child before dinner.
Do not forget to list items such as play and other enjoyable tasks, so that the child does not equate list-making with only those tasks he does not like. Providing as much as possible on the list shows him/her that list-making is a tool, not another difficult transition to overcome.
Separation anxiety can be upsetting for parents. It may be helpful to talk with other parents who also have children who experience similar symptoms. Sometimes, this networking can encourage the children to network with another as well. Anxious behaviors tend to decrease when a child does not feel unique or odd.
Chances are that if you have a child who manifests separation anxiety, one or both parents shared similar histories as children. Tell your children if you too had similar feelings as well as how you personally overcame them. Share at what ages the disorder appeared and at what age you were able to conquer it. This historical reference will allow the child to see that he too can become functioning as an adult.
If after using some or all of the interventions mentioned, the child does not respond, and possibly, symptoms exacerbate, it may indicate the need for further counseling or even an evaluation for pharmaceutical intervention. Make certain that whomever is willing to counsel the child has an expertise in child development as well as anxiety disorders. Also, make certain that they are state or nationally licensed.
In conclusion, separation anxiety is a disorder more common than what, as a parent, you might feel. The disorder has been thoroughly researched and many alternatives are available if what is listed above does not ameliorate your child’s anxiety.
Telling your child that you love and support them as they struggle with learning ways to cope will go a long way toward helping them. Knowing that you are their advocate in speaking up for them will encourage less anxiety in all areas of his/her life.