Your Child and Separation Anxiety
As a child I suffered from separation anxiety.
It would creep up on me at sleepovers, parties and play-dates. My parents would be called to come and get me at all hours, depending on when the sick feeling in my stomach, the hotness in my head and the foreboding fear would eventually overtake the enjoyment of the occasion.
They never complained.
But I wish now that they had done.
That someone had explained to me what I was feeling. Possibly digging around as to why I felt such anxiety and dread as soon as their car was out of sight. Who knows, this may have saved me a lot of anguish and my parents a lot of petrol money!
As an adult I look back and dig for answers myself.
We lived in the country and my parents were a big part of the small-town community. They were dedicated workers, what would now be called ‘workaholics’. When they were not in the office, they were involved in every committee, from amateur dramatics, school governors, to church choirs and parish councils. Subsequently, my sister and I spent a lot of our childhood at our grandparent’s houses, which were helpfully up the road from ours!
Because I was never sure when they would be home, always moving from one meeting to another, I believe this is where my anxiety stemmed from. The uncertainty. Not knowing where they would be, or who would be looking after us. The fear of abandonment and being left alone if something happened to them.
So, let’s dig a little deeper into what separation anxiety looks like. Let us see how it might affect your own child, as we transition from enclosed family lockdown life, back into school routines and separation from each other.
Firstly, Some Facts.
- Separation anxiety is the most common type of anxiety disorder. Approximately 4% of children, aged 7-11, 3.9% of 12 – 14 year-olds and dropping to 1.6% in those aged 14 – 16, making it the most prevalent anxiety disorder among children.
- It is natural for toddlers, becoming more aware of their surroundings, to struggle in separating from caregivers. My first child would not leave my side. He cried his way to nursery, and continue to cry into Reception. Here he had to be prised away, so that I could whimper my way home in despair and guilt. Eventually his love of learning and reading overcame his fears and all of us took second place to “Captain Underpants” and “Harry Potter”!
- For many children, some tears when being dropped off to school and the occasional meltdown when picked up, are fairly common. However, regular symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder are a cause for concern as they can profoundly affect a child’s day-to-day living.
Symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder
It is important for us to acknowledge this disorder and that symptoms of Separation Anxiety in children and adolescents cause significant distress.
- Children with Separation Anxiety tend to shadow parents around the house, with the fear of being left alone.
- With this fear of being apart from a parent or caregiver, school refusal is common with both children and adolescents. This can result in low school attendance and poor academic learning.
- This fear can be exacerbated throughout the day with the thoughts of abandonment and losing their attachment figure through illness, accident or death, whilst they are away from them. Ongoing anxiety floods the body with the stress hormone, cortisol, triggering the fight and flight response, increasing heart rate and blood pressure. This in turn affects the child’s behaviour, communication and learning, as the brain focuses all its attention on the perceived danger.
- Social activities and after school clubs get discarded, play-dates and friendships suffer, as the need to get back to the attached figure becomes their sole purpose. The social development of the child suffers, with the skills needed to overcome these challenges; resilience, positive mindset, confidence left to flounder.
- Bedtime becomes a time of stress. Often a child will require a parent or caregiver to stay with them when they fall asleep, many suffering from nightmares. They will consistently wake in the night and need reassurance, coming into their parent’s room and often sleeping in their beds. I remember there were many times that my own father was ousted from his slumbers into my small single bed, whilst I stretched out in the comfort of his, knowing that I was safe there.
- The pressure that we put on ourselves as parents can create family stress. With the added guilt to always be there for our children, giving up activities and social engagements that are important for our own mental health and work/family/life balance.
Meet Marvin our Monkey Mind
At BEST, our philosophy is to teach a child about how their brains work and develop. How their thoughts create their feelings that bring about their actions, allowing them to begin to take responsibility for their attitudes and behaviours.
Anxiety begins in our Emotional Brain with the Amygdala.
The Amygdala is our fearful watchdog for danger, who at any given sign will alert our Reptile Brain and together will trigger our Fight & Flight Response.
This response was incredibly helpful when we were being chased by hairy mammoths and Sabre-toothed tigers. However, as our Primal brains can’t tell the difference between real danger and the fear of danger, it is no longer helpful at surprise parties or public speaking, especially when facing the idea of abandonment….
Our Primal brains are then exacerbated by our Monkey Mind with the constant “What if”s. “What if there’s danger ahead?” “What if something happens when I’m at school?”
When the Monkey Mind is fed with attention, it not only causes us to catastrophise but also to avoid situations that we would ordinarily enjoy, just in case!
Looking through the eyes of an over anxious monkey, whose job and total focus is to protect and keep you safe, the experience of being separated from a loved one is catastrophically enhanced and you can see where the anxious thoughts begin.
- My Mum/dad is late picking me up from school, they must be hurt…
Catastrophising – with separation anxiety:
- If your mum/dad is late picking you up from school he/she must be in an accident, hurt or dead!
- If you go to the party or the sleepover something could happen to someone you love very much, therefore it is better you don’t go.
- If you spend all day at school, something could happen to a parent or loved one.
- If you hear a siren, it could be for them.
Avoidant behaviour – with separation anxiety:
- Avoiding going too far away from home or the person you are attached too.
- Avoiding going on sleepovers or play dates.
- Avoiding doing fun activities with friends as something may happen when you are apart from a parent/carer.
How You Can Help Your Child at Home
Supporting your child with their social and emotional development should be top of the lengthy priority list for parents.
There can be nothing greater than showing a child/adolescent that you understand that they are struggling. Recognising that their emotional, primal brains are taking control and that you are there to support them.
- Help your child talk about their anxious thoughts and together come up with a list of positive answers to overcome each monkey “What if?”.
- Make a plan to help your child transition to school in the morning calmly. Be prepared. Do not leave the house in a hurry or under duress.
- Arriving earlier to school than necessary and having distractions/games to play whilst you wait can help some. Arriving later at a designated time with the school, so that goodbyes are not prolonged, can help others.
- I wrote messages in my children’s lunchboxes with positive, jokey phrases that would raise a smile. Lunchtimes can be quite hazardous for anxious children, reminding them you are not far away can be helpful.
- Focus on overcoming one challenge at a time. The challenge could be a play-date, a club, a babysitter, but don’t expect to conquer them all in the first week!
- Always, always, always – Alert your child to changes in routine ahead of time. As you can see, I can’t over emphasise this one enough!
- Practicing deep breathing can be effective for so many reasons. If you are new to mindfulness and breathing then begin with breathing 3 breathes in through the nose, holding for 4 and breathing out through the mouth for 5.
- Constantly empathise with your child and comment on the amazing progress they have made.
At BEST we like to use a strategy called “The Challenge ladder”.
Draw a ladder, or even better, if you have one to hand that would look delightful in your living room, use a real one!
Write on each rung a challenge to overcome. Each one needs to be slightly bigger and scarier than the one below it. For example:
- First rung – Spending time playing by oneself at home.
- Second rung – Setting up a bedtime routine that does not need the parent to stay.
- Third rung – Staying in one’s bed the whole night.
- Goal – Allowing a babysitter to stay one evening.
As each challenge is met, the more confident your child will feel at accepting anxiety as a feeling that they can have control over.
Keep updating the ladder once the challenges have been overcome, moving from home to school to friends and sleepovers…
With practice one will become able to take back control of their overactive Monkey mind and venture out rather than avoid all situations and new experiences.
Once your child is climbing their own ladder, you can begin yours! We all need a Challenge Ladder!!
If Separation Anxiety Needs Outside Help.
There are several commonly used treatments for Separation Anxiety Disorder. Finding a psychotherapist who specialises in children and adolescents is the first step toward helping your child cope.
There are different types of psychotherapy that can be effective in treating Separation Anxiety Disorder.
- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
- Family therapy.
- Play therapy.
There are many specialised people out there that are qualified to help you choose the right cause of action for you and your child.
Getting back to where I began.
My anxiety didn’t continue into adulthood.
Puberty and adolescence came along, and with that, friends and relationships became all-consuming! As a mother of teenagers, I recognise the decline in the emotional chain, where as parents we become less important than their peers. This of course is terribly sad for us, but terribly important for our children to actually grow up and eventually move away!
Sadly for some, separation anxiety does follow them as they get older and for those that are aware of it, I strongly suggest getting some help and talking anxieties through, to find strategies that work for you as an adult. My heartfelt thoughts are with you.