“No way am I going in. Nope.”
Spencer refuses to leave the back seat of his parents car. He burrows into the floorboards, holding on to the door.
“You can’t make me!”
His mother is shocked, stress, and frustrated. She has to be to work in 20 minutes, and just 2 minutes (120 seconds) ago, Spencer was a smiley, happy boy. But, when they pulled up to the school drop-off area, he refuses to go in.
“What do I do now?!!” she asks herself.
Separation Anxiety is common, yet can be very frustrating and upsetting for children (and their parents).
Oftentimes, like Spencer above, children have difficulties separating, and can experience panic in these situations. They may feel sick, and feel worried or guilty about not being with their families. Often children wonder what their parents or loved ones are doing and whether something terrible has happened to them, like death, a car accident, or a shooting. As a result, they have great reluctance or refusal to separate from their parents. They may have difficulty sleeping in their own room or different parts of the house. When they come home from school or camp, they may be irritable, tired, and upset, as it takes a lot of energy to hold that level of stress/anxiety in all day. Oftentimes, a loved one will make a simple request, and then the child will yell, cry, or tantrum.
When children refuse to separate, many parents try to coax them into the school or daycare, often with minimal results. They may try bribery or yelling, also likely to be ineffective long term.
What can a parent do to help a child with separation anxiety?
If you are a parent of a child with separation anxiety, there are a number of things that you can do to help. However, it is often helpful to enlist the help of a professional, even just for a few sessions, who have experience with cognitive behavioral therapy for separation anxiety concerns. It can be a challenging experience to manage on your own.
The most important thing to do as a parent is to stay calm
Even though the transitions (or difficulty doing so) can be very stressful and frustrating, it is important to remember that your child is not doing it on purpose. They are frightened and upset. (Anxiety is like that. If often doesn’t make sense when we think about it later). If you also get angry or upset, it will only make things worse in the moment, as well as in the future. Children with anxiety are very sensitive to the anxiety of others, and research has found that treatments cannot be effective if parents are upset. Calm is key.
It is best to have a proactive plan in place before you start to work on your child transitioning successfully
Difficulties with separation are much easier if you know what to do, and have a plan to manage them in place. They are not easy to manage in the moment, and are unlikely to be successful if you don’t have the necessary supports and practices in place.
Talk to your child’s teacher and principal. Explain to them what is happening with your child, and that you need their assistance. The goal is to keep drop-offs short and matter of fact. Ask your child’s teacher or principal to meet you at the car in the morning, and calmly walk your child into the school. Most times, this is very helpful. Once this has gone well for a week or so, it is possible a peer mentor, like a safety patrol, could also meet your child at the car and walk him in. Once this is successful for a few weeks, a peer mentor or friend could also be used.
Have a behavior plan in place for your child at home. This plan should have the following components
- Daily rewards for practicing and/or role-playing drop-offs at home with you and your child. Rewards could be a few “points” that they can turn in nightly for something small, but meaningful. Role-plays could involve dolls, toys, siblings, or your and your child changing places. But, practicing when you and your child are not under stress is key for understanding the process and changing behavior.
- Daily rewards for a good drop-off. It is important that this rewards are accompanied by clear, genuine, and specific praise for what your child did each day. Again rewards could be points that your child turns in for something fun everyday, like a foot rub, a bike-ride, picking dinner, or going to the park. (The important part is the praise and recognition of your child’s efforts).
- A bigger reward at the end of the week if your child is successful for 4 out of the 5 days. This could include something like going to a movie, going to the swimming pool, or having a friend over. You and your child should agree on this reward prior to the start of the week.
- Continue to teach and practice with your child anxiety management strategies, such as:
Seek Professional Assistance from a Child Psychologist or Child Therapist
Many times, these types of situations or plans can be challenging to use effectively without a child therapist or psychologist who is helping your family. It is always ok to print out this blog-post, and take it to your psychologist. If you see a child psychologist or therapist, make sure they are skilled with behavioral interventions for children, as well as CBT for children with anxiety. These are the most effective and research-supported methods.