Separation Anxiety & the Fears of Going to School
Now that school has started, some children are experiencing separation anxiety. According to national statistics about 2% of children are diagnosed with Separation Anxiety Disorder. Of course, just after a nice long leisurely summer with parents, many children feel stress just at the thought of going to school. Normal anxiety revolves around meeting the new teacher, finding out if they can do the new work, making new friends, and the age old tasks of completing and turning in homework. For most children, anxiety and worry are greatly reduced once they become comfortable with the school routine and get to know their new teacher and friends. So, how do you know if your child is experiencing anxiety and what can you do to “nip it in the bud?”
First of all, children with Separation Anxiety Disorder often do not sleep alone, have physical symptoms such as nausea and even vomiting, and do whatever they can to stall and get out of going to school or even separating from their mother. They also may be concerned that their parents may get sick or be in some sort of danger that could keep them away. In my practice, parents often say that their child vomits at school, but when they return home they seem to be fine and eat and begin playing with their toys or games.
Here a few tips that parents can try that I find helps reduce anxiety and gets the child through his school day.
1. Listen to your child without judging. Sometimes just empathetic listening can reduce anxiety.
2. Remain calm but assertive. If your mood is calm your child may model your mood. Make sure you set limits and whatever you do, don’t let them talk you out of going to school—some kids can be very creative.
3. Talk to your child about techniques that may help. For example, some children like to keep a small box in their desk of items that remind them of home. Some items could be pictures, a small stuffed animal, or a note from mom. Of course, include the teacher in this technique.
4. Sometimes a brief phone call can help. Practice the phone call ahead of time. It can go like this: Hi Mom, I just wanted you to know that I did my math and this afternoon we have an art project.
5. Find daily rewards for making it through the school day, e.g. a short game before bed.
6. Place a note in your child’s lunch box or book bag.
7. Work with your child’s teacher and school counselor.
8. Keep your child from gaining too much knowledge of family problems, e.g. a parent’s anxiety problems, financial problems, or a family illness. It is important for children to understand that families have problems, but too much information can burden them.
9. Most of all, be encouraging. Focus on your child’s strengths and courage. Remind him of other fears he has overcome and his ability to make it through the school day.
10. If your child’s symptoms seem to get worse, he is missing several days of school, or just seems like he is sad and not enjoying his usual childhood activities, it is time to seek more help. Counseling here at CBT includes a coordination of assessment, individual sessions for your child, parenting techniques, and consultation with his teacher and school counselor. My registered therapy dog helps teach relaxation and most of all makes therapy fun and playful.
Thanks for reading my tips,
Jan Eggiman, RN,MS, LMFT