With school having begun recently, I’ve been seeing a lot of separation anxiety. Most of the time this problem affects younger children, and manifests itself as school refusal. In a typical case, the child is very upset about leaving parents in the morning, either refusing to get on the bus, or refusing to get out of the car at school drop-off. Unfortunately, there is usually lots of crying and sadness. Many children complain of stomach aches or being too sick to attend school. Once in school, many children do fine, but that doesn’t lessen the upsetting emotional scene associated with the separation.
Psychologically, the child does not want to separate from the warmth and safety of his or her bond with parents. In my experience, the drama is magnified with mothers. Naturally, this can be very upsetting for parents as children desperately plead to be kept home. Everyone knows that this is a phase the child has to move through, but that’s much easier to say from a distance – where you don’t have to contend with the screams and crying!
Here are some ideas; strategies that I have found to work:
- Allow the child to bond with a therapist. You need a neutral third party to be the voice of calm and planning. The slight formality of therapy has a big effect of kids. It lets them know the problem is serious, and that there is an appointed person to help. Even the process of having the child meet with a therapist while you wait in the waiting room is good practice for separating for the school day. I introduce this concept at the first meeting, reinforcing that therapy is like a laboratory where we experiment with different approaches to being brave.
- Don’t solve the problem too fast. I strongly recommend a paradoxical intervention where we tell the child we are going to solve this problem, but at a slow manageable speed. I go so far as to tell children to continue to have the problem at least some days of the week. This may sound counterproductive, but it relieves a massive amount of stress. Being given permission to exhibit the “problem,” lessens the tension around trying to suppress strong emotions. I remind kids about this as they leave my office, thereby setting up a situation where no matter what happens there will be no significant disappointment. Often, with this permission in hand, kids no longer feel the need to be so demonstrative. That’s because they now feel assured they won’t be denied the opportunity to express fear. At a later meeting I might say, “well, if you don’t think you need to cry anymore, that’s okay, but if you get sad again let me know, and we’ll work out a schedule for it. This helps convert spontaneous emotional outbursts into something more subject to a child’s control. It’s also a great life learning about the management of difficult emotions.
- Music and dancing are great allies. Managing separation anxiety is all about transforming strong emotions into confidence and courage. For young children, music and dancing help this process along by shifting focus from all things mental to what is going on in the body. I recommend playing music as gets get up in the morning to set the right tone, and where they are receptive, having them dance to it as a way to get positive energy moving. Also, I have often asked parents to play music in the car on the way to school, singing loudly with kids as you drive along. This is companionable and shifts the child-parent bond to something fun from the drama of “goodbye.”
- Ask the teacher to give your child an important job. it is impossible to overstate the importance of a child’s attachment to her or his teacher. That has to go beyond being warmly greeted, and being told you are well liked. A job grounds a child’s purpose within a classroom or school. A job invites more objective, pragmatic thinking. It is a reason for children to be eager to get to school. Note: A job helps a child make the existential transition from sole identity as son or daughter, to that of being student and classmate. Ultimately, this is the psychological transition that children affected by separation anxiety have to make.
When separation anxiety does get solved it is wonderful for everyone. It is of course a huge relief for parents, who find the tears and pleas gut-wrenching. But it’s also a great joy for teachers who can see that the child has allowed himself to be more calmly integrated with other students in this new community. Kids themselves get a huge burst of confidence which rubs off on other endeavors. Don’t be surprised if separation anxiety shows up again the following year, but it won’t be as strong, and the child will have a memory of how it was resolved. Cheers!