The do’s and don’ts of dealing with separation anxiety
By Randy Cale, PH.D
Separation anxiety is relatively common with pre-school and elementary aged children. It can show up at various stages and is often triggered in the following situations:
• Leaving kids at daycare or summer camp
• Kids getting on the school bus.
• Leaving kids with a babysitter.
• Transition between households after divorce.
A number of different factors contribute to anxiety when separating from a parent. Here is a summary of what we can safely conclude:
1. Increased general anxiety tends to contribute to separation anxiety.
A child going through a stressful time, which may be due to a change in schools, friendships, homes, parental functioning or any other events that increases their overall anxiety, is more vulnerable to separation anxiety.
2. The more overprotected the more vulnerable.
When kids are overprotected by parents they have not been allowed to experience and deal with upsets on their own. This is one of the hallmark features of the overprotective child, and thus parents are unintentionally nurturing a weaker sense of self-esteem and self-confidence.
3. Parents who overreact to their children’s anxiety promote separation anxiety.
Some parents are highly sensitized to every emotional reaction of their child. When their child is crying they impute a level of emotional distress consistent with what an adult would feel, leading to the parent’s overreacting to the slightest upsets on the part of their children. This interferes with a healthy response which allows children to easily and quickly resolve their separation anxiety.
4. Significant disruptions or fear around relationships with parents. During times of separation and divorce, there may be legal, practical or protective reasons that produce a significant breach in the relationship between a child and a parent. When children experience a deep sense of loss or fear about a permanent loss with a parent, they may begin to display separation anxiety with their consistent caretakers.
5. When a parent’s fear becomes their child’s fear. When parents are afraid that their children can’t handle it, they often communicate this to their kids. They don’t do so directly; rather, they it through their own emotional reactions, the tone in their voice and the questions they ask (probing about a child’s experiences).
If you want a sure fire formula for undermining your child’s sense of confidence that they can handle a transition or change, then ask them 25 questions and continue to doubt their answers. Make comments such as, “Are you sure?” What this does is put children in a position to make decisions that parents are there to make, which is a set up for separation anxiety.
What can you do about it?
Don’t put your kids on medication. I have seen this fail time and time again. This is not a situation where kids need medication. It is not the source of the problem for most children.
Get your child out of your emotions. Make sure that your fears and worries have not become your child’s fears and worries. If you’re concerned about them going to school or how they’re going to handle situations after a divorce, you have to deal with this fear and anxiety elsewhere.
They can handle it! This is a plain and simple fact. Your kids can handle going to school, being left at daycare and going between Dad’s and Mom’s house. You must exude it and speak it so that your kids know this.
Make transitions short and sweet. The most significant mistake you can make would be to have a lengthy goodbye. The second biggest mistake (which is similar) is to ask lots of preparatory questions and offer a huge explanation (over and over again) before a transition occurs.
Both of these are certain to lead to failure, as they communicate your sense of uncertainty about whether or not your child can handle this.
On the other side, make sure you don’t engage the upsets. Every elementary and kindergarten teacher knows this. If you stand in the doorway of your child’s classroom and she starts to sob, the teacher will ask you to leave while she walks your child into the classroom. Within five minutes, all is well and life goes on.
These simple guidelines will help you stay on track. Your child’s separation anxiety will be a thing of the past in a couple of weeks!
Dr. Randy Cale, a Clifton Park based parenting expert, author, speaker and licensed psychologist, offers practical guidance for a host of parenting concerns. Dr. Cale’s new website, www.TerrificParenting.com offers valuable free parenting information and an e-mail newsletter.