5 Tips for Helping Kids Cope with Separation Anxiety

Image via Katie Hurley
Image via Katie Hurley

Separation anxiety is a common theme during the first few weeks of a new school year, even among older elementary school children.  It can be hard to get back into the school schedule after a summer of camps, downtime, or time spent with family. 

For many kids, the first few weeks of school can be anxiety-producing as they settle into a new class and make new friends.  But for some kids, the anxiety can be paralyzing. 

Whether your child’s anxiety level qualifies as separation anxiety disorder or separation anxiety, there are a few things you can do to help your child.

 Separation anxiety disorder goes beyond a few tears at the classroom door and can interfere with normal development.  The main difference between separation anxiety and separation anxiety disorder is the intensity of the fears.  For a child with separation anxiety disorder, the mere thought of separation can cause panic or overwhelming anxiety. 

Common symptoms of separation anxiety disorder:

  • Sleep disturbance:  Nightmares about separation and fear of being alone can make sleep difficult for these kids.
  • Clinging to caregivers.
  • School refusal.
  • Psychosomatic complaints:  Children with separation anxiety are likely to complain or headaches or stomachaches just prior to or at the time of separation.

Common fears for children with separation anxiety disorder:

  • Fear that an unpredicted event will lead to permanent separation.
  • Fears about the safety of parents and loved ones during separation.
  • Fears about their own safety during a separation.

Causes of separation anxiety disorder will vary from child to child but there are a few common triggers among children with separation anxiety:

  • Stress:  Loss (even of a pet), divorce, parental discord, moving homes, and major family changes can all trigger separation anxiety disorder.
  • Changes in environment:  A new school, a new teacher, or a new after-school provider or babysitter can all trigger separation anxiety disorder.  

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Whether your child’s anxiety level qualifies as separation anxiety disorder or separation anxiety, there are a few things you can do to help your child.  If, however, you feel that your child’s symptoms are interfering with normal daily activities and school refusal leads to frequent absences from school, it is best to seek an evaluation from a qualified mental health professional.

5 Tips for Helping Kids with Separation Anxiety:

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1. Time School Right: 

Some kids with separation anxiety benefit from getting to school early and doing a “special job” in the classroom to help the teacher prepare for the day, or going in a few minutes later, after the rest of the class is settled.

The waiting period outside the classroom before the bell rings can cause kids to panic as they replay their fears in their minds.  Talk to the teacher about making accommodations.

Image via Flickr/woodleywonderworks
Image via Flickr/woodleywonderworks

2. Rely on predictability:

A consistent routine is always beneficial to kids with anxiety.  Provide warnings when there will be changes, as unexpected change can trigger panic.

Ask the teacher to place a small copy of the daily schedule on your child’s desk.  Although it is likely posted on the white board, having a copy taped to the desk can help anxious students feel a sense of control.  It also helps when the teacher provides warnings of unexpected changes to the daily schedule.  

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3. Get a digital watch:

Kids tend to feel anxious when they feel a lack of control over their lives.  The school day can feel long and overwhelming, particularly for children who have yet to learn how to tell time.

A watch can help.  When children feel like they can stay on top of the schedule and check their watches to see what comes next, they feel more in control of their days.  Go over the daily schedule at home.  Make sure your child knows when lunch, recess, or other break times occur.

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4. Talk about it:

When children have fears they need to get them out.  Talk about their specific fears.  Although it can be hard to listen to fears about things like death or kidnapping from young children, these can be very real fears for children with separation anxiety disorder.

Talk about the small successes that happen throughout the day, particularly positive reports from teachers, to reinforce the concept that your child can handle the separation. 

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5. Transitional objects:

Even older children can benefit from a transitional object.  A smooth wishing stone kept in a pocket or a small picture tucked into a backpack can help your child feel connected to home during separations.  And never underestimate the power of a stress ball kept in the desk.

Has your child experienced separation anxiety?

 

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5 Tips for Helping Kids Cope with Separation Anxiety

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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2 comments

  1. debbie says:

    i’m about to start school im so scared this is gonna happen to my son what can I do to prevent it?

    • Hi, Debbie. Separation anxiety is not fun, but most of the time it is a normal part of development — most children experience separation anxiety on some level. Katie has given some incredibly helpful advice, and in addition to her blog post, this article may help ease some of your concerns, as well http://www.everydayfamily.com/baby-separation-anxiety/. As always, you can always seek advice from a professional if your worries persist. I hope this helps. Best wishes to you and your little one.

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