Danielle was 8 years-old when her anxiety first showed up. Before that she had no problems going to school or being away from her mother, Lisa. But all of a sudden it became a struggle to get her out the door in the morning. First Lisa had to drive Danielle to school, since Danielle made such a fuss about walking on her own . Then, before long, Lisa had to walk her right into class. Within a few months, Danielle was refusing to go to school all together. Lisa didn’t know what to do.
Separation anxiety is one of those common childhood challenges that many families have to cope with. While it’s not unusual for some kids to be a bit shy or clingy when in a new environment, when a child starts to show panic symptoms, school refusal, extreme worrying about bad things happening to him or his caregiver, and physical symptoms when away from a parent, it can be highly disruptive for families to manage.
Here are 5 ways professionals and parents can help:
1) Make a plan:
Most of the time overcoming anxiety requires actually facing anxiety. Adult clients, although generally not super-thrilled about the prospect of exposure to a feared situation, understand the need to face their fears. Kids often do not. So the counsellor must try to explain the process to the child and then work with the child and his family to develop a plan to slowly expose him to situations where he will experience anxiety. The child may not be totally on board, but he does need to know the plan and have some input into it (e.g., next week Mom is going to drop you off at the school door instead of walking you into class. The following week, she will drop you off in the parking lot). The child can help provide ideas for the various steps in his exposure plan, which may increase his willingness to engage (e.g., I will try to stay overnight at Grandma’s house if I can call home twice during the night). Taking on separation anxiety should be an intentional process and therapists and families can work together to help kids determine what that process looks like.
2) Pick a security item
Children dealing with separation anxiety may find it helpful to take some kind of security article with them into their feared situations. They may already have an item that they would find reassuring. Or they may enjoy spending some of their session time making one. Perhaps a picture of parent tucked into a pencil case will do. Maybe the client would like to make matching friendship bracelets for him and Mom that they can wear when they are apart. Whatever the object is, it should be something that reminds the child of the parent, makes the child feel close to the parent, and provides assurance that they will be reunited again.
3) Teach deep breathing and relaxation strategies
I won’t say much on this subject as I talked about some easy ways to teach children about deep breathing in a previous post, so feel free to check that out. As with other types of anxiety, deep breathing and relaxation strategies can help children to manage the symptoms of anxiety. That’s half the battle, as anxiety feeds on itself, causing children to become more anxious in response to the sensations they are experiencing in their bodies.. If children can calm their physical symptoms of anxiety with relaxed breathing and relaxed muscles, they will be able to implement other strategies (e.g., pulling out their security item, waiting for the anxiety to pass, choosing positive thoughts, distraction, etc.) to help deal with the separation.
4) Encourage positive thoughts
Changing one’s thinking is standard cognitive behavioral fare for anxiety. I’ve not found the cognitive part to beas helpful with younger children as more behavioural approaches, simply because they have a hard time thinking about their own though processes. But, even if they can’t quite wrap their heads around irrational beliefs and cognitive schemas, younger kids can understand the basic idea that thinking happier thoughts can help them feel better. Picking out some positive thoughts to use, going through a list of affirmations such as the ones here, and even making flash cards of the thoughts they choose can give kids a powerful cognitive strategies to use while in anxiety-provoking situations.
5) Promote appropriate parental encouragement
Parents are the best resource that kids have for overcoming their worries. Thus, parents need to know how to handle their kids’ anxiety. The automatic reaction to a child who is panicked is to tell him that there is nothing to worry about and reassure him that the things he fears won’t happen. While these statements may be true, and although the child’s fear may be assuaged for the moment, in reassuring the child, parents sets up a cycle where that child will need constant reassurance to manage their anxiety. It is better if parents learn to help their kids work through their worries with questions like “What are you worried is going to happen?” and “How likely is that to happen?” Most of the worries kids have are very unlikely to happen. If parents can learn how to realize that fact themselves, then kids will eventually be able to reassure themselves instead of relying on external sources. Of course, if a child is in panic mode, these questions will have to wait until his anxiety level is lower. No one can think rationally in the midst of panic.
Finally, as kids face their worries and begin implementing strategies to deal with their anxiety, parents can be their children’s cheerleaders. They can praise efforts (even if it doesn’t work out as planned), progress, and successes, all of which will help keep their child’s motivation up.
As with other forms of anxiety, exposure is the key to overcoming separation anxiety: gradually experiencing situations away from the parent, experiencing anxiety, and staying in the situation long enough for the anxiety to pass (this is important: if the child runs away from the situation when anxious, the anxiety will go away and the running away will be reinforced as the solution to anxiety). The strategies in this post will help kids do just that.
Of course there are many other tools and strategies out there to help kids with separation anxiety; these are just five of the staples. If you are a parent or are working with a child with anxiety, I have written a short story called Agent Pensby and His Little Troubles: A Tale About Separation Anxiety. This is a printable story where the child gets to be the illustrator. The story is a launching off point for a discussion about anxiety. The text introduces the concept of separation anxiety and a few strategies for managing it. Therapists can use the story in session or parents can do it at home with the child. Download the story here.
If your child is not big into drawing, I’d encourage you to check out Agent Pensby and the Golden Fish: A Tale About Anxiety. This book, intended for children between about 6 and 9 years of age, is an action packed, fully illustrated picture book that teaches kids about anxiety. Kids learn about the physical symptoms of anxiety, as well as about strategies like deep breathing, positive thinking, and visualization. While this book is not specific to separation anxiety, all of the strategies that Pensby uses would benefit a child struggling with separation. For maximum benefit, the book is intended for an adult to read and discuss with the child.
Those are five strategies useful for addressing separation anxiety. Please feel free to post your own in the comments section.