How To Deal With Separation Anxiety In Children (& Yourself)

Written by Sara Langer
9:00 am
08/20/18

Natalie Martin and Son, photographed by Maria Del Rio

With the start of a new school year and other times of major transition, anxiety in children and parents is heightened. Separation anxiety, specifically, can plague many kids at the beginning of the school year. Defined as the fear or anxiety associated with separation from home or an attachment figure, separation anxiety is a completely normal part of childhood development. Even so, it can be very unnerving for families. According to Clinical Therapist and Mental Health Specialist Michele Kambolis, also the author of Generation Stressed: Play-Based Tools to Help Your Children Overcome Anxiety, anxiety among children is on the rise. “At least four children in every classroom today has clinical levels of anxiety. That’s about 20% of all children,” explains Kamobolis, who also believes that images and stories about classroom violence are adding to some students’ fear and doubt around attending school.

In the opening chapter of her aforementioned book, the author uses an example of a rushed morning getting ready for school as another destabilizing situation. “There is nothing worse than dropping your child off at school after a stressful, rushed, or terrible morning together,” she writes. As the founder of Chi School, an organization that promotes and teaches mindfulness to teachers, parents, and students in schools, Kambolis recently shared with us a roster of tried-and-true tips for dealing with separation anxiety in children and helping your kids be calm and confident during back-to-school season and beyond.

Pay attention to the basics.
“Make sure that your children are getting enough sleep, because if they are not getting enough rest then it is very difficult for children to manage and regulate emotions. Emotion regulation is one of the first things to go if they are short on sleep. Focus on sleep routines and having plenty of time in the morning to be able to supportively and calmly get through the morning routine. That is great preparation for the day and preventative in escalating anxiety. A rushed child is more prone to feeling anxious and having difficulty separating. Far too many children are going to school sleep deprived, which makes it harder to focus, remember, and learn, let alone managing the social dynamics on the playground. So, first things first, we need to make sure children are well-rested, that they have time in the morning to have a well balanced breakfast, that they are not hurried and worried. You want to make sure parents are not feeling the stress of a rushed morning as well. You want to be able to react in ways that are calm and centered.”

Make space for conversation.
“Take the time to talk about what your children are thinking, feeling, and experiences about returning to school. Children may have a whole host of reactions to this transition. Some are very eager to get back to school, while others are fearful and hesitant. We want to make room for children to be able to metabolize their feelings through us, through our presence, and our ability to help them problem solve. That might mean taking some extra time in the evening to go for a walk, play, or draw. As you are engaging in the side-by-side activity, start to ask those questions in way that you can reflect back to them what you hear them saying, empathically and openly. Respond to whatever it is they are struggling with. When we provide that open, caring space, children feel deeply reassured and can begin to problem solve. Be careful not to go directly to problem solving, because we want children to feel like we really understand them and we are really listening to their struggles first, before we try and solve the problem.”

Validate your child’s fears
“It’s not helpful to try and override your child’s feelings of fear. It might be tempting to say comments like, ‘Oh you’ll be fine’ or ‘It’s no big deal, you did it last year.’ But for children who are afraid, comments like that can be can be completely invalidating. For them their fear is very real and children can feel held hostage by their emotions. Instead, enter their world and reassure them with compassionate comments like, ‘It sounds like it feels really scary right now’ or ‘I’m going to help you through this. Sometimes going back to school can bring up a lot of nerves and that is understandable. I am going to do everything I can to help you manage those feelings.’ It can also be helpful to talk about your own experiences in feeling apprehensive about going back to school in order to normalize their experience and to model that these are really important feelings to talk about.”

Practice mindfulness through deep breathing.
“Mindfulness activities are some of the most powerful tools we have to help children regulate anxiety or stress. Deep breathing in particular is like the fast track to calming the body and the nervous system. With children we can do this really creatively, by blowing into straws or blowing bubbles, or ‘pizza breathing’ (explained below). For children that are experiencing fear and anxiety about separating from you, helping them learn how to breath deeply can be such a game changer. It can seem so simple and it is, but we often forget to use our breath. You can use a child’s imagination to help them understand more abstract topics. For example, an analogy I like to use is when we are feeling stressed is that there is a monkey in our minds. Our minds are racing and our thoughts are going really fast and it’s like there is a monkey in our mind. The monkey is really busy and loud, it is swinging from tree to tree and it distracts us and it makes us feel upset. One of the ways we can calm the monkey is by doing ‘pizza breathing’, which is explained by using the shape of a slice of pizza. You breath up the slice of the pizza, holding your breath for the crust, then breathing out down the other side of the pizza. We imagine feeding the monkey a piece pizza, as we are breathing. And when we feed the monkey the pizza, he is becoming very full and content and falls asleep. There is something about deep breathing that activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps with relaxation. The great thing about deep breathing is you can do it anywhere.”

Get rid of negative thoughts.
“One thing I do with children that are experiencing anxiety, specifically separation anxiety, is look at the ‘thinking mind’ and asking,’what are you saying to yourself about this?’ And often what children are saying to themselves is, ‘I can’t do it’, ‘I’m dumb’, or ‘I hate it there.’ It’s often a negative I-statement that they have internalized. If we can get children talking about what they’re saying in their thinking mind, it gives us a way to help them to challenge those negative and irrational thoughts and beliefs. When children learn what they think has a direct effect on what they feel, that is a really empowering concept. Try and help your child identify what they are saying to themselves. The next step is to ask them what they would like to say to themselves differently. What can we change in order to make you feel better or more empowered or supported? That thought switching is something that can lead to a complete shift in their emotional reality. One of the ways we can help kids externalize their negative thinking or mindset is to have them blow their thoughts into a balloon. The thought leaves their minds and enters the balloon. They hold the balloon up and then they let it go and it flies all around. The symbol and the kinetic experience of letting that negative thought go creates a physical and emotional release.”

Relax the muscles in the body.
“Progressive muscle relaxation is another great tool to use with kids when they are stressed or fearful about something. This involves squeezing the muscles and then relaxing them. When you squeeze and relax your muscles it releases neurochemicals that send messages to the body that you are safe and you are no longer in danger. Something as simple as squeezing a sponge or an imaginative game that gets kids to squeeze and release different muscle groups can be really helpful. The first step in helping with anxiety is calming the body and that in turn will help calm the mind. When we calm the body and the mind, children can tackle their fears much more easily. What we are really encouraging is a process where we can help them soothe their limbic system. With separation anxiety the limbic system is fired up and their brain system is reading the situation as dangerous when it’s not. By calming the automatic fight, flight, or freeze response, children are much better able to face separation.”

Connect with the teachers as soon as you can.
“How the transfer of attachment is handled is really important. One of the things I know teachers would really appreciate is writing ten facts about your child, so they have that from the onset and they already know a little bit about your child from day one. It can be really reassuring to children when they see their parent writing out information about them in order to help their teacher get to know them. Taking the time to do this can be really helpful to both the teacher and the child. If you know that your child has a predisposition to anxiety it’s great to reconnect them with supportive friends in their school. Get them back into the school playground before school begins, so they are familiar with environment and they can build positive feelings at the school before it even starts. As soon as you’re able to, have a conversation with or meet with the teacher. If that can happen before school starts, even better. It’s important to front load the teacher and make a plan for the transition. Some teachers are open to the child coming in before school starts to say hello and talk about their summer or maybe even helping with some of the classroom preparation. There isn’t one specific way, but having the chance to connect (or reconnect) with the teacher and begin to form or strengthen their connection with your child can be very helpful. If you’re not able to meet in person, err on the side of being able to provide more information than less. Don’t worry about inundating the teacher and don’t hesitate to share if any part of your parenting instincts that are fired up or worried.”

Create a visual schedule or calendar.
“Get out a whiteboard and write out the weekly or daily schedule. This way children can have a visual reminder of where play and downtime are going to be scheduled and when they will be reunited with family and loved ones at the end of the day. One of the biggest fears many children have in going back to school is that they aren’t going to have a enough time for the things that they really love. If they can see that those vital activities and connections aren’t going to be neglected it can be very reassuring to them.”

Examine your own anxiety.
“It’s also really important to soothe yourself. When we see our children suffering, we suffer too. If you’re noticing yourself feeling anxious, nervous, or fearful, draw on your own tools and skills so you are not matching your child’s fear and anxiety. Keep in mind that heightened anxiety is highly genetic. A child that is prone to fear and anxiety usually has at least one parent who may also be struggling with the same. Anxiety is the biggest risk to our health and it is the most common mental health concern. At least four children in every classroom have clinical levels of anxiety and 80% of children say that what stresses them the most is their parent’s stress. We are all living with anxiety levels that we know to be beyond what is healthy. One of the best things to examine is our lifestyle and how hurried and worried our current schedules and routines are. You need to take a really honest look at how much you are prioritizing down time and connection. One of the most emotionally nutritious components of our ‘mental health platter’ is down time, play, and connection. Busy schedules are crowding out vital activities for our children’s well being and our own well being.”

Fore more on the latter, check out our piece on The Importance of Playtime For Adults.

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