How To Help A Child With Separation Anxiety At School

Anxiety, whether in children or in adults, is often cast aside or ignored, widely believed to be a simple case of over-thinking or worrying too much. While this may sometimes be true, it is often more serious than we think – anxiety disorders are real medical conditions that need to be acknowledged.

What Is Anxiety?

Anxiety is an extreme, and often irrational, feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome.

It is normal for an individual to have occasional anxious feelings about upcoming events or situations, but if the feelings are persistent and have a negative impact on ones day-to-day life, it may be more than just anxiousness – it may be an anxiety disorder.

Different Types of Anxiety Disorders

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Generalized Anxiety Disorder is characterized by an irrational fear or worry of everyday tasks, responsibilities, or events. Commonly, people with GAD worry excessively over aspects such as money and finances, health concerns, job related factors, or their families.

  • Panic Disorder

Individuals who have Panic Disorder have experienced spontaneous panic attacks (also known as “anxiety attacks”) for seemingly no reason. Consequently, these individuals are then preoccupied with the fear that the panic attacks will reoccur.

  • Social Anxiety Disorder

Those who suffer from Social Anxiety Disorder often avoid social settings or public situations for fear of being judged, rejected, or ridiculed. They worry they will be viewed negatively, as awkward or boring, and that they will appear visibly anxious (sweating, shaking, blushing, etc.)

  • Separation Anxiety Disorder

Separation Anxiety describes the exaggerated fear of separation from home or a particular individual (known as an “attachment figure”) that one may feel. This can include short-term separation, such as distress caused by leaving home for any reason, or long-term separation, such as the fear of harm coming to the attachment figure.

  • Phobias

A phobia is a lasting and unreasonably intense fear caused by the presence, or even by the thought, of one specific object or situation. Exposure to the triggering object or situation typically evokes an immediate reaction of intense nervousness and distress.

Anxiety In Children

Up to 1 in 5 Canadian children or youth will be affected by some form of mental disorder. The two most common mental illnesses amongst this age group are various anxiety disorders and depression.

All children will display anxious behaviours at some point – this is normal. However, when it starts to become obvious that they are unable to move past whatever is making them nervous, their behaviours or responses become excessive, or their worrying begins to affect them physically, it is very possible that they have an anxiety disorder.

If you are worried that your child has some form of an anxiety disorder, there are a number of symptoms you can watch for, including physical, emotional, and behavioural symptoms.

  • Physical symptoms can include: frequent headaches or stomach aches; refusal to eat; restlessness, fidgeting, or hyperactivity; sweating or shaking; or troubles sleeping.
  • Emotional symptoms can include: over sensitivity; pessimism; spontaneous and unjust anger; panic attacks; frequent nightmares; over-exaggerated fears; worrying about things that are far into the future; worrying what other kids think of them; of fearing making mistakes.
  • Behavioural symptoms can include: avoiding participating in social activities; constantly asking “what if” questions; refusing to go to school; constantly seeking approval from parents or peers; giving up on activities without really trying; or remaining silent or purposely preoccupied when in group settings.

Separation Anxiety In Children

One of the most common types of anxiety disorders that affect children is separation anxiety. When struggling from this disorder, children will typically be triggered when separated either from one or both of their parents or when leaving their home.

It is quite normal for infants and toddlers to display signs of separation anxiety when their parent either places them down or leaves the room.

Typically children will grow out of this as the get to an age where they understand that their parent will be returning shortly and that their lack of presence in the moment is nothing to be concerned about. This is often as the child begins learning to speak, enabling the parent to communicate and explain the situation to the child.

If you notice that your child continues to exhibit symptoms customary to separation anxiety past the age of 2 or 3, or their anxiety seems to progressively get worse, it is quite possible that they have separation anxiety disorder.

Oftentimes separation anxiety isn’t discovered until the child has started school, as this is when it normally turns into quite a prominent issue and becomes increasingly more obvious.

Separation Anxiety and School

Now, don’t freak out if your preschooler or kindergartener begins to cry or tries to hide the first few times you drop them off at school. This is a natural reaction to going through such a big change to their usual routine and being placed in a new environment.

Being away from you and from home is most likely new to them, and it only makes sense that it may make them scared, stressed, or uncomfortable.

It is also very common for children starting school for the first time to become anxious about being away from home and their parents. A lot of young children cry as their parents leave them at preschool or kindergarten the first few times, and may avoid others for a little while, until becoming used to their new surroundings and peers.

If, however, this fear and discomfort persists into the school yeah without easing, we recommend monitoring your child for signs and symptoms of separation anxiety disorder and, if present, speak to a physician about your concerns.

Helping A Child Through Their School Related Separation Anxiety

If your child has been diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder and it is having a negative impact on their ability to attend school or their academic performance, there are a series of steps you can take to help reduce their anxiety and build a healthy daily routine for them.

Step 1: Speak To Your Child About Anxiety

Teach your child about anxiety; give their feelings a name. While it is important to validate your child’s feelings, it is also critical that you explain to them how it can become a problem when there is no real reason for those feelings to be present.

After talking to your child about what anxiety is, you should discuss with them why you think they are experiencing separation anxiety in particular.

First, let your child know that it is completely normal for it to be difficult for them to say goodbye to you or feel anxious when away from you, especially if they are used to having you around all of the time. Next, discuss how it makes them feel when separated from you (physically, emotionally, and behaviourally) and walk through reasons why those feelings are unnecessary.

Step 2: Listen To Your Child

It is healthier for your children to speak openly about their feelings rather than for them to try and ignore them, and it is even more important for them to feel truly heard.

Let them know that you are there for them and be empathetic towards how they are feeling (but don’t baby them – ensure that they understand that the goal is to get past these feelings, not accept them).

Step 3: Provide Your Child With Coping Techniques

Equip your child with tools and techniques to help calm them down that they can exercise when feeling anxious.

The most effective strategies involve physically calming your body. Teach your child how to calm their breathing by taking deep, slow breaths, and to relax their muscles.

Next create a mantra they can recite to themselves, such as “I will be okay being on my own, just as I was last time”. This can help ease their mind.

Lastly, provide them with something physical they can turn to, such as a photo of yourself or handwritten notes from you, when they are missing you.

Step 4: Provide A Consistent Routine

Do not underestimate the power that a stable routine will have on a child’s mental state. Predictability creates a comfortable environment for a child, especially one with anxiety.

If the child is aware of when they will be away from you, and for how long, it means they also know when they will be reunited with you. If there are any drastic changes to the routine, be sure to let your child know ahead of time so you can prepare them.

Step 5: Help Your Child Feel Safe and Secure at School

Ensuring that your child feels safe and comfortable in their school setting can help ease the fear of being away from home and you.

Arrange with their school a private space where your child can go if they begin feeling anxious or ill. Feeling trapped in the classroom surrounded by other children often only amplifies the negative feelings. Isolating oneself is often a good way to calm down.

Also set up a system with the school in which your child can call and speak to you if they are struggling. Hearing your voice can help close the separation gap.

Step 6: Encourage Socialization and Interaction

Encourage your child to participate in class activities, play with other children at recess, or join a club or team. If they begin to associate school with friends and fun activities, they will be more likely to want to be there.

Keeping themselves busy with enjoyable activities will also distract them from the fact that they are away from you.

Step 7: Praise Your Childs Effort and Progress

Let your child know when they have made a step in the right direction. Positive reinforcement is a great way to keep a child on the right track.

Most Importantly: Take Anxiety Seriously

The most important thing to do to help your child is to take their anxiety seriously. Don’t sweep it under the rug in hopes that it will fade away. It can have lasting and damaging effects on their mood, learning abilities, and behaviours.

Anxiety disorders and any other mental illness are most often stigmatized within society, but they are real and serious conditions, and need to be treated as such.


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