7 Strategies for Helping Your School-Aged Child Overcome Separation Anxiety
7 Strategies for Helping Your School-Aged Child Overcome Separation Anxiety
Does your child struggle emotionally when getting dropped off at school in the mornings? Are there tears and complaints of headaches or stomach aches? Have you received calls from the school nurse letting you know your child wants to come home? If so, your child could be struggling with separation anxiety.
Many parents were aware of the significant adjustment their kids would face when returning to the classroom once the worst of COVID-19 was over. After 18 months of at-home learning, few thought the transition would be easy, given all the time spent at home with family. Many kids understandably struggled with separation anxiety at that time. But why is it still such an issue among kids today?
Shannon Miller, clinical director at ChoicePoint Health reminds us that, “COVID-19 increased anxiety disorders in children globally. The sudden drastic change of learning environments and social interactions set up unusual circumstances for children’s developing brains. COVID disrupted children’s lives—and their childhood—and the psychological impact caused by the coronavirus pandemic, particularly on children and adolescents, was severe.” Apparently, it’s also longer lasting than many of us anticipated.
What is Separation Anxiety?
Some form of clinginess and fear of being separated from a parent are actually quite common in younger children and a normal part of their development. It means that they are securely attached to their caregiver.
But when separation anxiety persists in older children or teens, or when it causes debilitating anxiety, a case can be made for separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety is a disorder in which children become excessively anxious when separated from parents especially during times of stress. It may show up as extreme worry, excessive crying, or physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach aches
Children with separation anxiety can’t think about anything but the present fear of separation. They may be hesitant to go to school or other places. It can interfere with daily functioning, well-being, academics, or physical health.
Separation anxiety is the most common anxiety disorder diagnosed in children, accounting for around 50% of diagnoses (Ehrenreich et al., 2008).
Symptoms of Separation Anxiety
The symptoms of separation anxiety are usually excessive for the individual’s developmental age and include the following:
- Repeated and excessive distress about being away from loved ones
- Constant and excessive worry about losing a loved one to an illness or disaster
- Needing to know where a loved one is at all times
- Feeling anxious about being alone in a room
- Excessive worry about something bad happening to themselves
- Having exaggerated and irrational fears of things like the dark, monsters, or burglars
- Nightmares, specifically about separation
- Extreme and severe crying
- Refusal to do anything that requires separation
- Refusal to go to school
- Failure to interact with other children in a healthy way
- Refusing to sleep alone
- Being shy and socially withdrawn
In older children with separation anxiety, they may experience school-specific behaviors since school can be a major stressor for their anxiety. They may pretend to be sick or experience headaches when it’s time to go to school. The illness tends to go away once the child is allowed to stay home, but it may reappear again before school the next day.
What Causes Separation Anxiety?
There are many factors that can play a role. Here are the main ones:
- A change in caregiver
- Change in routine
- Following a traumatic event
- Change in parent availability
- Change in family structure e.g., through divorce or illness
- Moving to a new house
- Starting a new school
- After any life change, even if it’s a positive change
Secure attachment is important for a child’s development. Insecure attachment early in life may affect a child’s ability to bond with others and feel safe away from their loved ones.
Likewise, parenting that is overly critical, controlling, or overprotective may disrupt a child’s normal autonomy development, and also contribute to anxiety disorders.
Certain temperaments are considered to be more susceptible to anxiety disorders than others. Specifically, those with timid or shy temperaments may be at risk for developing separation anxiety.
Data suggests that separation anxiety is inheritable from a biological parent in 20-40% of cases. (Fox & Kalin, 2014). As a result, it is likely a child could develop anxiety from a parent.
Strategies for Overcoming Separation Anxiety
As difficult as it is for your child to experience separation anxiety, it can leave you feeling completely overwhelmed and at a loss for what to do. If your child is currently struggling with separation anxiety, read on for 8 strategies you can use to help your child overcome separation anxiety.
Acknowledge your child’s anxiety
It’s very important that you validate both your child’s experience and feelings. Do not downplay or trivialize their fears or concerns. But don’t attempt to “fix” the issue either. Let them know that you have confidence in them and in their ability to tolerate distress and do hard things.
Remind them of times in the past when they’ve accomplished difficult things or conquered a particular fear. The more they keep at it or practice something, the easier it will become. Do not allow them to avoid difficult situations as that will only fuel their anxiety. Your child needs to learn how to tolerate and manage their distress. Your words should sound something like, “You can handle this. I will help you. You can feel the fear and do it anyway.” That’s what strengthens confidence and produces resilience.
Help your child express their feelings
Kids with anxiety must be allowed room to breathe and process what they’re going through. It’s especially important that your child feel heard and understood. Help them name and put words to their fears.
For younger kids, drawing and coloring can be a helpful way to express themselves. Expressing their worries, even if you feel they’re out of proportion or excessive, will help them to understand that what they’re experiencing matters. Putting a name to the anxiety can also help things feel less threatening and out of control.
Create a routine
Try to establish and maintain a routine at home as much as possible. You can help your child by marking on a calendar what the week will look like in advance like when they go to school and when they stay home. This structure helps your child get ready mentally and emotionally for what’s coming. This routine doesn’t have to be rigid, but it will help frame the day for your child. Talk about each upcoming day during bedtime the night before. Help them prepare their backpacks, pick out an outfit, select their lunch items, all in advance. This is reassuring for your child.
Help your child deal with uncertainty
Always be honest with your child. If you don’t know what their new school will look like, or what their field trip to the museum will entail exactly, it’s OK to admit that. You don’t have to have all the answers but you can still be reassuring.
You can let your child know that you’re not sure what their new school will look like or what exactly they’ll be doing at the museum. But you can engage your child in conversation about what they hope to experience once they’re there. What kind of friend are they hoping to meet at their new school? What do they expect to see or experience at the museum? Approach the discussion with curiosity and let them know you’re excited to hear all the details when they return home.
Practice positive reframing
Help your child think positively about situations. For instance, if your child is anxious about going to school, remind them that they will get to see their best friend or work on a project they love—and that they can always ask their teacher for help if needed.
Likewise, if your child is worried about attending a sleep over because that means separation from you, help them reframe the event. Ask what kinds of activities they hope to do there or what movies they’ll watch with their friends. Emphasize the likely fun they’ll have together and that you’re only a text or phone call away if they need extra support.
Consider a transitional object
Younger children are particularly found of stuffed animals or photos, but older children can also benefit from a transitional object. These objects might include a piece of your jewelry, a trinket to keep in their pocket, or some other object that represents the familiarity and security of your family. On those tough days when they miss you, a familiar object or photo can help ease their sadness or worries and remind them that you’re there in spirit.
Say goodbye and really mean it
There’s nothing worse than saying goodbye and walking away from an anxious or sobbing child. It hurts your heart! Take a deep breath and let them know who will be picking them up and when you’ll see them again. Don’t get baited into staying longer or giving one last hug. Kids are smart and if you linger, they’ll learn their tears mean you’ll stay longer. If they have an option between clinging to you, or learning independence and resilience, they’ll likely choose you. And they’ll know the tears will keep you there.
Begin Online Therapy for Kids and Teens with Separation Anxiety in Illinois and now Florida!
As an experienced and caring therapist, I love providing counseling for anxiety. To start your child’s counseling journey, call me at 224-236-2296 or email Helena@BrieflyCounseling.com to schedule a FREE 20-minute consultation.
Whether you’re on the North Shore, in Naperville, Chicago, Champaign, Barrington, Libertyville, Glenview, or downstate Illinois, I can help.
And effective 2024, I am now licensed in Florida! For parents in Jacksonville, Pensacola, Destin, Crestview, Coral Gables, Weston, Parkland, Naples, Marco Island, and Pinecrest, I have immediate openings.
Schedule your appointment or consultation today. I look forward to working with your child to quickly and effectively help them in activating their strengths, resources, and resilience, in order to live with confidence and hope.
* Article Sources:
- Older Kids and Separation Anxiety: How it Happens and What to Do. Health and Wellness. July 2017.
- 9 Tips to Help our Kids with Separation Anxiety at School. Today. Lisa Tolin. May 2021.
- Separation Anxiety and Social Anxiety in Kids. Parents. Kimberly Zapata. May, 2022.
- Separation Anxiety Disorder. Simple Psychology. Olivia Guy-Evans. March 2022.