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Children Pre-School Age Separation Anxiety
Dropping off at School
Separation Anxiety when Starting Pre-School
It is natural for a preschool child to feel anxious when they are left in a new environment without mommy or daddy, which is referred to as separation anxiety. After all, starting preschool is a big step for a child particularly if the child has not been out of the home very often or spent time with a relative. They often don’t want to say goodbye, and they will cry. Clingyness, crying or tantrums are considered healthy reactions to separation in the early years. They may stop and then start again up until the child is 4 years old.
This is not abnormal, but just a stage in a child’s development which can indicate a healthy attachment with their parents. It means that a strong, loving bond exists between you and your child. Most children stop crying 3-4 minutes after the parent leaves. As a parent it can be a little heart wrenching. but fortunately most children outgrow this reaction quickly once they adapt to daycare or kindergarten. The separation anxiety can vary greatly from one child to another. Some children are more clingy and irritable than others, and they may have a more difficult time adapting to a change in their daily routine. This doesn't mean the child will have problems later in life. It just requires a little more effort on the part of the parent. Staying patient and being consistent by gently setting firm limits is important.
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Ease the Transition
There are several things you can do to ease the transition for your child from home to preschool.
- Before your child starts class take them to visit the school to see the classroom and to meet the teacher.
- If possible have a play day with one or more of the children that will attend their class because they will be happy to see their friend again.
- Give your child a lot of reassurance that Mommy or Daddy are coming back.
- Give them a comforting object like a teddy bear or favorite blanket to take with them. Also you can take a favorite book that the teacher can read to them. If they have a backpack you can put a small family picture in the pack.
- Keep your goodbyes short and you might use a special little wave or quick kiss to develop a positive routine of dropping them off. If you are anxious and hover around your child will sense the anxiety and react.
- Don’t sneak out as you want your child to know they can trust you.
- It is also important to not let children watch scary shows on TV as they have vivid imaginations and these can trigger anxiety or nightmares.
- Never bribe or bargain your child to behave. Children have to be allowed to have their own feelings to become a little more independent.
Methods of Easing the Transition
You must be clear with the message that they are expected to attend school no matter how much they fuss, cry or stamp their feet. Never take them home because they are acting out. Boundaries are important for children and actually promote a safe atmosphere for them to grow.
Once they start school, invite children over to play from their class which will ease the transition to making new friends.
Have your spouse or another family member drop them off or pick them up occasionally, or maybe you can pick up one of their classmates to take to school also which should help with the difficult goodbyes.
Discuss problems with the teacher in the morning as necessary but save more interactive questions for after school.
Involve the teacher if your child is having difficulty making the transition.
Don’t be surprised if you think you have resolved the problem then after a few vacation days it returns, but usually just briefly.
Believe that your child has the ability to make this positive change.
Anxiety Disorders in Children and Teens
Children Watching Out for Each Other
Separation Anxiety vs Separation Anxiety Disorder
Many of the same characteristics are shared by Separation anxiety disorder and normal separation so it can be difficult to determine if your child just needs time to adjust or if there is a more serious concern. The main difference between these reactions are the intensity of your child’s fears and if these fears keep them from normal activities.
Some children experience separation anxiety that doesn’t go away even when the parent is doing everything right. There is a continuation or constant re-occurrence of intense separation anxiety during elementary school years and it can even go beyond.
Separation anxiety disorder is not a normal stage of development, but a more serious emotional problem. The child experiences extreme distress even when they just think about being left somewhere away from home without their normal caregiver. In separation anxiety disorder the child’s fears limit their ability to engage in a normal life.
Symtoms of Separation Anxiety
These children feel constantly worried or fearful about separation and are overwhelmed with one or more of the following scenarios:
- They have fear that something will happen to a loved one. For example, they may constantly worry that their parent may become hurt or sick.
- They may worry that some unpredictable event will lead to a permanent separation. These children may worry about getting lost or kidnapped.
- These children also have nightmares about separation. They have scary dreams about their fears.
Common symptoms of separation anxiety disorder that interferes with a child’s normal routine:
- They may refuse to go to school. A child with this disorder may have an unreasonable fear of school and will do anything to stay at home.
- They may have difficulty going to sleep. They can become insomniacs, either due to the fear of being alone or due to nightmares about separation.
- Complaining of physical illness, like a headache or tummy ache is common.
- These children may cling to the caregiver by shadowing you around the house or clinging to your arm or leg if you attempt to go somewhere.
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Common Causes of Separation Anxiety Disorder
What are the common causes of separation anxiety disorder? The child feels unsafe in some way. Try to figure out what caused your child to develop this fear. If you can pinpoint an event that caused them to feel threatened, then you are a step closer to helping them gain victory over their anxiety.
Some common causes of separation anxiety disorder:
- Changes in environment are a common cause of stress in a child. For example; a new home, a new school or daycare, constant bickering between a husband and wife observed by the child, or divorce can cause a great deal of stress.
- Stressful situation like switching schools or the loss of a loved one, including a pet, can trigger this disorder.
- Over protective parents may cause this disorder where the anxiety of the parents is perceived by the child.
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Tips for Dealing with the Disorder
If this disorder happens overnight then it may be related to a traumatic experience rather than separation anxiety.
The best way to help your child is to create a very stable, sympathetic environment at home which will make you child more comfortable and able to cope better with school.
Some other tips for dealing with separation anxiety disorder:
- It is important to educate yourself about the disorder as you will understand how you child experiences these feelings and you can easily sympathize with their struggles.
- It is very important to listen to your child’s feelings. Whether they are valid is irrelevant as they are real to them. This way the child won’t feel isolated and it can have a powerful healing effect.
- Talk about the issues. Be empathetic but remind your child that they survived the last separation.
- Look ahead to anticipate transition points that may aggravate this problem, such as going to a new school or meeting with new friends to play. If you child separates from one parent more easily than the other, let that parent drop the child off if possible.
- Encourage your child to participate in healthy social and physical activities.
- If you child has been absent due to illness return them to school as soon as possible after they regain their health.
- Always praise your child’s efforts, even the smallest accomplishments from going to bed on time to a good report card.
When to Seek Professional Help
Since children with anxious parents tend to get this disorder more readily, make sure your are making healthy choices, such as, talking about your problems, eating healthy, exercising, getting enough sleep and practice relaxation or meditation techniques.
If your child has separation anxiety disorder and you have tried everything to help them overcome the disorder, but no progress has been made then it is time to seek some professional help.
The disorder can be diagnosed by a professional and there are several types of treatment that are usually effective.
- Talk therapy: a safe place for your child to express his feelings with someone that is empathetic that can guide your child toward understanding his or her anxiety.
- Play therapy: play or coloring is a common way for the child to express their feelings.
- Counseling for the family: family counseling can help your child interact with the thoughts that cause his or her anxiety while you as the parents can help your child with coping skills.
- Medication: used in severe cases but only in conjunction with other therapy.
Most small children have some anxiety when starting school or even going to places they are not familiar with, and this is healthy and normal. Following the suggestions listed above for the common symptoms of separation anxiety disorder will probably help your child to outgrow the problem. For those situations that require intervention it is a good idea to do this while your child is young, as problems left untreated until the child reaches their teens are much more difficult to treat and have a positive outcome.