Recognizing the signs in school-aged children:
- Does she often report somatic complaints – headaches, stomachaches, nausea – that aren’t medically understood and correlate with transitions and separations?
- Does he struggle to fall asleep alone or refuse to go to bed without you near?
- Does she get teary, complain, or become tense when anticipating or experiencing a goodbye?
- Does he ask to be picked up from school, miss activities, or leave sleepovers early because he prefers to be at home.
If you answered “yes” to at least two of these questions, your child may have separation anxiety.
Ways You Can Help Your, Child:
By using basic behavioral strategies you can help your child build confidence and reduce or eliminate separation anxiety over time by following a few consistent steps:
- Map out the transitions and separations experienced through your child’s day. From wake up, school drop-off, classroom transitions, school pick-up, after-school activities, to bedtime. You may even devise a visual schedule to assist your child in anticipating these transitions.
- Set a consistent transition routine with your child and use it at every goodbye. Your farewell routine may include a particular phrase such as, “I love you, see you soon.” It may also include a special handshake or high-five or one hug and two cheek kisses. Your child may benefit from a transition object such as a favorite stuffed animal or a handwritten note for comfort. It is best if the transition routine is as clear and predictable as possible.
- Sit down with your child and devise a plan together to slowly guide your child through mastering planned separations. This is essentially a gradual exposure to your child’s fears. Remember, a child with separation anxiety is most terrified of being left, abandoned and out of control. You may begin by allowing them some control during transitions and separations. For example, plan a school drop-off with your child leaving you to join an activity rather than your child watching you leave them in the classroom.
- Positively praise and reinforce your child’s successful ability and growing capacity to tolerate small doses of distress from separation. Make sure you let them know that you believe in them! Gradually, you will increase the length of time of separations and decrease the length of transitions using transition supports. With consistency, kindness, and positive support most parents successfully help their child move through their fears of separation.
If you already tried these suggestions and you find your child is experiencing anxiety, consider a consultation with your child's pediatrician.
(Adapted from an article written by Elli Peic, PsyD)