Many parents deal with separation anxiety of some kind when their children start school for the first time. We aren’t necessarily fully prepared for it, but we expect some sort of a hard time when they head off for their first day of Prep.
But what about separation anxiety in older children? What if your child is in Grade 2 or 4 or older and has difficulty letting you go at the school gate? What if you are still dealing with tears and anxiety year after year?
It takes its toll on your child and also on you as a parent.
Even if you suspect that once you are out of sight your child will probably be fine, and you should just be able to get on with your day, it is still heartbreaking. Having the image of your crying, anxious child reaching out for you in anguish as you walk away stuck in your head all day is kind of exhausting.
Why is my child still having trouble separating?
Even children that were fine saying goodbye for a long time can suddenly out of the blue start getting upset when you let them go. So, what does it mean?
Separation anxiety is more than just kids being clingy or emotional. When chronic, this is a recognised psychological disorder. It isn’t something that can or should be ignored and is probably more than just a phase.
Most children have trouble saying goodbye to Mum and Dad sometimes, such as when kinder or prep starts for the first time, or the parents are heading away on a trip. The first time left alone in a new environment like a classroom, or the first time at a sleepover or camp will naturally bring up some stress and worries for your child.
Their comfort zone is where you are. This is outside their comfort zone, and experiencing uncertainty, confusion, rising emotions and physical sensations like nerves and adrenalin are all to be expected. This is a normal stage of child development.
Separation Anxiety Disorder
But Separation Anxiety Disorder is much more than nerves about doing something completely new and unknown.
This kind of condition happens even when the child is very familiar with where they are going and who they’ll be with when Mum and Dad leave.
When the length and intensity of the anxiety, as well as the extent of your child’s fears, get in the way of life and everyday activities, then it becomes a problem.
Signs that there might be a bigger problem:
- Your child may become upset just at the thought of being separated from you
- They may complain of physical symptoms or sickness to avoid going somewhere
- They might cling to you physically or follow you around like a shadow
- Your child might stop sleeping because of their fears or nightmares
Causes of Separation Anxiety in Older Children
Your child might be afraid that something will happen to you while you are apart, or that while you are separated you might be forced to stay apart. This could include fears that one of you will die or become kidnapped, or just vanish.
The most common cause of separation anxiety is because something has thrown your child’s life off balance and he now feels threatened or unsafe in some way. It may come about because of a change in circumstances or environment, because of an increase in stress in the child’s life, or because they are sensing your own stress or anxiety.
Has he suffered a trauma?
When everything is fine, and then suddenly everything isn’t, it’s natural for a parent to think the worst. You might be worried that your child is suddenly afraid to go to school because someone there has hurt or abused him in some way.
This is a possibility. If it comes on seemingly overnight than it can be brought about by a trauma that your child has suffered.
There are some signs that you can watch out for to let you know if your child is suffering from a chronic disorder or may have been subjected to trauma. These can include:
- Behaviours that are not appropriate for their age such as clinginess or tantrums
- Significant withdrawal from friends or other people when they were fine before
- Constant fear, worry or anxiety
- Refusing to go to the school or to leave the house for days and weeks
- Constant complaints of sickness like headache or stomach trouble
If these kinds of symptoms are happening and they don’t let up with your help, you should consider speaking to a mental health specialist.
Tips to help with Separation Anxiety in Older Children
It is most likely however that your child has just had something throw his sense of security out of whack, and with some help from you, can get things back to normal.
Your focus is to ease their fear and encourage their feeling of safety. Even if it is a disorder it is treatable, and there is a lot you can do to help you both.
Not only is it emotionally wrenching for both you and your child, but it’s a bit inconvenient having this drama every day. You might be imagining hugs and tears and anguish when your child leaves for university, or gets married, or has their first day at work – is this going to happen forever?
Experts recommend that you focus on being the adult, on staying patient and consistent, and on being gentle but firm. Your child will respond better when you are calm.
It also a good idea to remember that your child is having a hard time, not intentionally giving you one. Try to empathise with your child and understand what they are feeling. One of the strongest things you can do is not leave your child feeling isolated in their state.
Help your child by not letting them avoid the situations or places they are afraid of. This may only reinforce your child’s fears.
Listen to them, and give them the opportunity to open up and talk about what is worrying them. Do this when you are both calm and safe, not just before an impending separation. Don’t let your child just not think about it, because this won’t help them face anything.
Here are some things that you can do:
- Work to give them a place of safety and consistency at home, even if you can’t control the uncertainty of school or the outside world.
- Offer them consistent routines throughout the day and at home, this helps reduce their fears about the unknown. Don’t spring changes in routine on your child but talk to them in advance about changes.
- Practice separation and also allow extra time for transition points to happen in anticipation of anxiety.
- If your child separates better from one parent than the other, it might be best to let that parent do the drop-off.
- Set up a ritual for each separation such as a secret handshake, or something that you both say to each other every time.
- Your child might benefit from taking a beloved toy or an item of yours with them to keep in their pocket through the day. You could also pop notes to him in his lunchbox.
- Tell your child where and when you will pick them up, and be consistent in picking them up when you say you will.
- Reward and praise your child when they make an effort to be brave.
Talk to others
Talk to your child’s teacher about the anxiety and see what ideas they might have that could help. See if they can allow you a few extra minutes to get settled if necessary, or let you take your child to a safe corner of the classroom or calming space until he calms down.
Talk to friends about how you’re feeling and get advice on how to deal with it. You need to vent about your concerns as well. It is normal to feel deeply worried or distressed about whatever your child is going through. Look for outlets for your own destressing opportunities like relaxation, exercise, fun or laugh with friends.
Look after yourself as well as worrying about your family. It is difficult, but there is a way through.