Tips for separation anxiety and school refusal

by User Not Found | Feb 08, 2016
Separation Anxiety and School Refusal

If you have children who have just started school this year, how are they settling in? 

Are they bursting with enthusiasm to go to school and be with their new friends, or are they having a hard time letting go?  

It’s pretty normal for children to say 'mummy or daddy, I don’t want to go to big school anymore,’ and teachers are very good at handling these situations. But if they continue to be anxious about going to school this could be a sign of separation anxiety, which could turn into something more serious.

Separation anxiety is when a child becomes very distressed when they are separated or anticipate separation from their parent or major caregiver.

If a child is:

  • having nightmares about separation and temper tantrums 
  • complaining about stomach aches or headaches,  
  • and panicking during separation;

this is a strong indication they are experiencing separation anxiety. 

It is a very common experience, but if it persists for more than a month, parents should seek professional help instead of hoping their child will grow out of it.

It could also develop into Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD) where: 

  • children have difficulty separating from adults in a variety of situations 
  • the problem is impacting their everyday life.  

SAD is relatively straightforward to treat, but research shows children who suffer from SAD have a greater risk of suffering from depression and anxiety later in life.  

Some schools will have a child psychologist to run programs for children to deal with issues like separation anxiety, but as a parent there are ways you can help increase your child’s confidence.  

Be a positive role model

Your child will be watching you whenever they are feeling anxious. If a parent looks anxious then it signals to the child that the surrounding environment is not safe. Therefore be mindful of the way you react to your child's anxiety. Frustration, anger and/or distress are all common emotions parents may experience upon seeing their child suffer from separation anxiety. The key is to take deep breaths and talk in a calm, soothing, but confident voice, showing your child their environment is safe and that you believe in their ability to cope.

Teach your child to breathe

A very simple, but highly effective technique for lowering anxiety is to take deep breaths. It's vital though that you teach your child deep breathing in calm, safe situations first. When a child is suddenly anxious, trying to teach them deep breathing for the first time will be next to impossible. A great way to teach deep breathing to a child is to make a game out of it. Once you've found a name for this game, then teach them to breathe in slowly for 2-3 seconds, and then have them breathe out for another 2-3 seconds. Deep breathing is a simple tool your child has at hand to lower their anxiety. Remember, practise deep breathing for short periods whenever possible, such as in the car. This way, if anxiety strikes then your child will be more inclined to use deep breathing automatically.

Face fear gradually

The final step is to help your child face their fear. This is crucial, because facing fear in a safe, controlled way is the best form of teaching your child that they can overcome their fear. Work out what situations trigger your child's separation anxiety, from mild to severe. For example, leaving your child in one room of the house as you go into another may cause mild anxiety, whereas having your child stay overnight at a trusted person's house may cause them a very high level of anxiety.

Source: This article is based on content made available for MY ASG members. The original article was written by psychologist and father of two, Anthony Gunn.

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