“Please don’t make me go to school.” If you are hearing this from your child, it might be a sign of separation anxiety. While separation anxiety can happen any time, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry says it's most common in children between the ages of 5-7 and 11-14—when kids have to deal with new challenges in elementary and middle school.
"About 10-15% of all school children can experience separation anxiety at some time, for a variety of reasons," notes Diane Peters Mayer, a psychotherapist and author of Overcoming School Anxiety: How to Help Your Child Deal With Separation, Tests, Homework, Bullies, Math Phobia, and Other Worries. The key is to recognize what's happening with your child and helping her learn to control her emotions. Here are answers to common questions about separation anxiety.
What are the symptoms of separation anxiety?
While tantrums, clinging, and refusing to be left alone are some of the main symptoms of separation anxiety, children may also experience the following:
- Stomach aches
- Shakiness or trembling
- Rapid heart rate
- Revved up respiration
- Excessive worry that something bad will happen to their parents or themselves
Children may certainly not exhibit all of these symptoms, and they will generally not recognize these symptoms as being "anxious", notes Peters Mayer. They will likely tell you: "My stomach hurts," or "I have a headache," and will be vocal about not wanting to leave home.
When children experience separation anxiety, it's nearly impossible to get them to participate and benefit from the lessons of school, let alone have fun. "It's almost impossible for children with separation anxiety to think, reason, or socialize in school because they are truly in survivor mode," says Peters Mayer. "All they know is they want to go home, and the school environment becomes very stressful—every part of it becomes stressful."
What causes separation anxiety?
First day jitters are 100% normal, so don't attribute night before nervous feelings to separation anxiety. However, there are particular traits and temperaments that make some children more prone to experiencing anxiety.
"Some children's temperament or their degree of sensitivity makes them more prone to having anxiety," notes Peters Mayer. "Additionally, if a parent in the house has anxiety, this increases the child's chances of developing separation anxiety or separation anxiety disorder."
When the first day of school comes, a sensitive child may become stressed and have physical manifestations of the stress such as having a stomach ache after being left alone at school. When Day 2 comes around, Peters Mayer explains that these kids remember their feelings from the previous day and start to anticipate feeling their symptoms again--thus causing anxiety to form around the act of going to school.
How long does separation anxiety last?
Most children adjust to school and get over separation anxiety eventually, but how long this takes depends on the child. In general, kids will start to learn that their parents will come to pick them up at the end of each day, and will adjust within a couple of weeks.
"The rule of thumb is that if your child is not adjusting within a month of starting school, then you want to go to the school for help," suggests Peters Mayer. You can talk to the teacher, the school guidance counselor, and others who may be able to team up with you to help your child learn to calm himself and adjust to school.
How can you treat separation anxiety?
Luckily, there are a number of thing parents can do to help ease and even prevent separation anxiety, including:
- Encourage independence early. Young children, especially those who are shy and sensitive can benefit from time away from parents. Drop them off with a grandparent or a sitter, and tell them the time you'll be back. Be sure to show up when you say you will, as this is key in helping children trust that you will come back for them at the end of the school day.
- Learn to calm yourself. Kids can read when their parents feel anxious, even when you say otherwise. Peters Mayer suggests learning how to take calming breaths and practice relaxing your face muscles in front of a mirror.
- Explain what's happening. An analogyPeters Mayer uses to explain separation anxiety to children is a fire alarm that goes off when mom is cooking. Peters Mayer says she tells children, “There was really no fire, but the alarm doesn't know it, and when you go to school your brain says 'Hey, this is dangerous, I don't like this,' and sets off the same kind of alarm.'" Understanding what's happening to them will help children recognize their feelings rather than becoming consumed by them.
- Teach them to calm themselves. Depending on the child, just practicing deep belly breathing can be quite soothing. Others might benefit from carrying a small object from home in their pocket or backpack.Figure out what works best for your child, and let the teacher know so she can encourage the child to use the technique in school as well.