“It can be hard to recognise an anxiety disorder. Kids who worry are often quietly worried,” says Dr Michelle Curtin, developmental-behavioural pediatrician at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health.
What are the signs of separation anxiety disorder, why might it occur and what can be done about it? This blog post explains.
Signs of separation anxiety disorder
The following symptoms could be a sign of separation anxiety:
- Your child resists going to school (or elsewhere) without you there
- Your child has trouble falling asleep alone at night
- Your child has a pattern of developing physical complaints such as stomachaches, headaches, or back pain – which are often seen in anxious and/or stressed children (however please check with your doctor in case these relate to another condition)
- Your child has tantrums but is “too old” for typical tantrums (i.e. they still occur when the child is aged 5-8)
What causes separation anxiety?
It can be caused by both genetics and the environment.
Kids are vey sensitive to how their parents feel. We do know that having an immediate family member with anxiety or depression is considered a significant risk factor for anxiety disorders.
Nearly all children experience brief feelings of anxiety about being away from a parent. These typically occur between 18 months and 3 years, although older children can experience separation anxiety during times of stress.
Biological factors: The brain has special chemicals, called neurotransmitters, that send messages back and forth to control the way a person feels. Serotonin and dopamine are important neurotransmitters that can (in certain circumstances) cause feelings of anxiety.
Family factors: Children can inherit their parent’s anxiety. They can also “learn” anxiety from their parents if the adult is noticeably stressed around the child. Certain actions from parents can also mean the issues do not go away or become worse, such as allowing a child to miss school when they are anxious about going.
Environmental factors: A traumatic experience (e.g. a divorce, illness or death) may also trigger the onset of separation anxiety disorder.
What strategies help reduce separation anxiety?
Strategy 1 – Don’t remove the trigger: “When kids are worried, they tend to avoid things that make them worry,” says Dr Curtin. “But if parents allow their kids to avoid everything that makes them anxious, they may be left with a very limited world – and they won’t learn how to move past their anxieties.”
Strategy 2 – Help your child build up a tolerance to being away from you: For instance, when going to a play area and sit in another room. You can then repeat this strategy on future visits and at bedtimes.
Strategy 3 – Instill confidence in your child: “Teach your child that this is a non-dangerous thing, even though it may feel scary, and it is something they can conquer,” Dr Curtin says. “Let your child know she is strong and capable even without you. And do your best not to let any of your own worries about your child seep into her thoughts.”
Strategy 4 – Encourage your child to try – and show your support: “We want to help our kids be as independent as possible, so you can’t solve this for your child but you can help him get through it. I compare it to climbing a jungle gym: urge your child to try, and if he falls down, tell him he did a great job and help him get back up again.”
Strategy 5 – Consider a transitional object: Remind them you’re there for them on occasions away (e.g. give them a scrapbook or a piece of jewellery)
Strategy 6 – Make a plan for new situations: If your child is starting a new phase, such as a new school, visit ahead of time and help him imagine what he might expect by talking through his new routine. This can alleviate the fear of uncertainty that may arise when you’re not there.
Strategy 7 – Practice positive reframing: Help your child think positively about situations. For instance, if your child is anxious about going to school, remind her that she will get to see her best friend or work on a project she loves – that she can always ask her teacher for help if needed.
What can EDClass do to help children with separation anxiety?
EDClass can help support students with separation anxiety.
Should pupils not feel comfortable with a full return to mainstream classrooms, we can help with timetabled lessons and an alternative provision which means they can still work towards an attendance mark.
Our service provides over 11,000 lessons, live teaching and support which meets the needs of many different students.
For more information call 01909 568 338.