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Child Separation Anxiety at School


As if mornings were not chaotic enough, your child's anxiety decides to pay a visit. Screeching out the door with feet dragging, your child screams,"I don't want to go to school, I hate everyone there."

This is a parent's dread; painfully watching their child in angst and not exactly understanding why it is a such a dramatic event. Furthermore, knowing that when you get to school your child is going to have a tantrum - in the foyer - in front of everyone just adds to the wave of emotions first thing in the morning. Your child cannot bear the thought of being without you.

You find this type of behavior to be: a)Endearing? b)Worrisome? c)Frustrating? d)Embarrassing? e)All of the above.

What do you do? Well for starters try to get to the root of the problem. Some children experience separation anxiety after a difficult experience such as the loss of a pet, a divorce, car accident, or peer difficulties. Others experience it when change is occurring like starting a new daycare or when the routine at home is suddenly disrupted. When we start to understand the underlying cause of the anxiety, we have a place to work from. Working with a counsellor may help expedite this process of uncovering the root issue if it is not evident. We know that our anxiety activates in the brain from a teeny tiny part called the amygdala, our body's automated fight or flight system. It is designed to protect us and keep us safe, however some individuals have an overactive amygdala that goes off when there is only perceived fear or danger - no real threat. We can train children as well as adults to have a better handle on their fight or flight system.

While a child works through underlying causes which may take months to work through, parents, teachers, and children may use strategies to manage the anxiety right away. Separation anxiety can impede on daily functioning but with a few different strategies the probability will decrease.

Here are some tips for dealing with separation anxiety at school:

1) Give them something to hold throughout the day - Does your child have a stuffed animal that makes them feel good? Let them keep it in their backpack. What is something tangible to give to your child that provides relief? Perhaps a rock that your child can keep in their pocket as a reminder of their connection with you.

2) Parent drop off duty - Is there a parent that separation anxiety is less likely to occur? - Have that parent do drop offs more often. It is not uncommon for an anxious parent to be the one that has more difficulty with their child at drop off. It is important to remain calm and firm when these tantrums occur.

3) Set the mood on the drive or walk to school - music, mantras, mindfulness are all ways to start the morning with some calm.

4) Use logic and rationale - Play out the worst case scenario with your child instead of them relying on you for reassurance. For example, your child might say, "I don't want to leave you." Instead of saying, "I am going to be here after school," you may ask "If I leave when will you see me next?" Having a child depend on reassurance is a band-aid fix as they are relying on you to soothe their anxiety rather than applying their own logic to the situation. Once in awhile is OK but don't become reliant on this coping strategy. The goal is for your child to learn how to overcome their anxiety and be resilient and taking you out of the equation.

5) Create predictability in their day - Children thrive on consistency and reliability. Anxiety tends to come from fear and the unknown so when a child can predict the outcome they are less likely to be anxious. This might be a place for you to talk about their schedule with them so they know what to expect.

Separation anxiety is tough on parents and even tougher on children. On a positive note, it is one of those hurdles that do get better with appropriate attention and care.