• Separation Anxiety in Middle Childhood

    A Guide for Parents and Carers

     

    Throughout childhood there are many situations where fear or anxiety can be elicited in children.   These may include being left with strangers (babysitters), or other separations from parents, imagining A boogie man in the cupboard, the dark, seeing natural disasters on the news, or fear of animals and loud noises, to name a few.

    Anxiety is a natural emotional response to danger or the perceived threat of danger that all human beings experience at some point in their lives. A little bit of anxiety as a general rule can benefit children and adults alike as it heightens our senses, gives our body a surge of adrenaline, helps us to think more sharply and perform better. This is often called the “fight or flight” response.

    What do we do if our child’s anxiety begins to interfere with their ability to function well and with the normal day to day running of our own lives? When they won’t let us out of their sight, become very clingy, refuse food or school and become highly emotional?

    How do we as parents manage this situation and what is the fallout for our children after having experienced it?

    What is Separation Anxiety?

    Separation anxiety occurs when a child believes that being away from their primary carer/s is going to result in cataclysmic circumstances with either the child or the carer/s being harmed.

    This belief is often triggered by a change in the child’s life that they do not understand and that frightens them. Some examples of such situations are;

    • Parental illness (might be as minor as a flu)
    • Illness in themselves
    • Parental arguments/fighting
    • Death of a grandparent, family member or even someone at schools family member.
    • Parental separation

    Often the child’s anxiety at being away from their parents following the precipitator, results in physical reactions that can include but are not limited to:

    • Stomach aches
    • Vomiting
    • Diarrhoea
    • Headaches
    • Heart racing
    • Fainting

    Children can often become so preoccupied with the thought of being away from their parents that they begin to have nightmares. The nightmares can result in the child becoming so distressed that they start wanting to sleep in their parents or family members bed.

    If children are forced to separate from their parents in order for their parents to go out or the child to go to school, the child may become fretful, clingy, highly emotional and may have episodes of aggressive tantrums, screaming and trying to prevent the separation.

    Sometimes the child may actually go to school but be returned home during the day due to complaints of being unwell or the child being aggressive towards teachers or other children.

    Separation Anxiety and School Refusal

    Separation anxiety is common amongst children aged five to six years given they are only beginning their education and the prospect of going to a big school may be daunting. Schools and teachers are aware of this and will often provide the support parents and children need at this time to ensure the anxiety is short lived.

    Similarly children aged eleven or twelve years of age may exhibit signs of separation anxiety as they transition to high school, which can often be away from their friends and the environment they know. Again, this is common amongst this age group and the schools are often aware of the anxiety children experience and have supports in place.

    Separation anxiety and school refusal is concerning when it appears suddenly after the child has been settled in their school environment for some time. The sudden refusal to go to school and the behavioural episodes that come with it may seem irrational to parents, and can result in a great deal of stress and conflict in the home as they search for answers and struggle with different ways to manage the situation.

    What You Can Do As Parents

    • Assess the reasons why your child is not wishing to go to school. Are they being bullied, are they having problems with their learning or teachers? Is something in the school environment scaring them?
    • Determine if the child’s fear springs from being separated from you. Have you or your partner being sick? Has there been increased stress in your home? Have you or a family member recently been injured or in an accident?
    • Have your child medically checked to ensure they are not unwell. Viral infections can often result in separation anxiety.
    • Contact the school and discuss your concerns with them. You will need them on board to assist you in supporting your child at this time. They may also be able to offer you suggestions and strategies.
    • Do not allow your child to go home with you following an episode. Keeping a child home from school will reinforce the behaviour and make it more difficult for the child to return to their normal routine.
    • Take small steps. Your child is frightened because they do not know what is happening to them. Try to explain to your child a little bit about what anxiety is and how it can affect them.
    • Try not to be impatient. Your child needs all the love and encouragement they can get at this time.
    • Involve the school and your child in the return to school plan. This may mean you staying at school for a bit longer in the morning or your child doing a few hours at school a day and gradually building the hours. Involve a teacher or staff member that your child is fond of to meet them at the school and take them off your hands.
    • Set up a reward system with your child. For every small achievement they make towards their return to school plan give your child a small reward or offer points to obtain a big reward when they have conquered their fears.

    If you believe your child is experiencing bullying as opposed to Separation Anxiety please refer to the following link for advice on how to manage the situation. (Insert link for bullying article)

     

    If your child is experiencing separation anxiety a counsellor or psychologist can provide further information and support to you and your child. To make an appointment with Eliza, please call on 0417910911.

     

    References

    Carr, A: The Handbook of Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychology. 2nd Edition: Routledge 2006: Chapter 12.

    Stafford B, Boris NW, Dalton R. Anxiety disorders. In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Jenson HB, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 18th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007: chapter 24.

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