Sometimes the human brain outsmarts itself. And this is exactly what is happening for children struggling with separation anxiety.
It often goes like this. You get them all pumped up for being brave at school drop-off. You remind them that they will get to do all sorts of fun things during the school day like play with their friends, and run around in gym class, oh and it’s hot lunch day today so you highlight that too. But you get to the classroom door and it’s a no-go.
The tears come. The clinging begins. The teary face buried in your shoulder arrives. Eventually the teacher comes and pries your child off of you, crying and desperate to stay with you. You hit the parking lot, maybe with some tears of your own.
And the next morning you prepare to do it all again.
What causes separation anxiety?
We are wired for connection, and particularly in times of stress, danger, or upset we long for it and seek it with intensity. This longing for connection is primal – a basic instinctual need that our psyche drives at relentlessly.
For many children separation anxiety comes out with back to school because the experience of heading into a classroom is stressful, perceived as dangerous, or otherwise upsetting to them. This could be because of a sensitive temperament, learning exceptionalities that make the school day particularly challenging, too much that is new or unknown, negative experiences with friends or teachers, the coming on of a cold or illness, general fatigue, or something else that you haven’t quite been able to put your finger on.
Separation anxiety as survival
Regardless of the cause, this stress alerts the survival centre of your child’s brain that danger is upon her. Rational thought is now no longer going to be operational. Rather instinct will take over, singularly focused on ensuring a connection with their parent.
The drive for connection will have the child engaging in what psychologists call “pursuit behaviors” – anything that will keep you close. Clinging, crying, melting down, pleading. All in a desperate attempt to have you save her from the (perceived) impending danger. And to the child, this feels like actual danger! It is not a ploy or a conscious manipulation. It is as though you have asked her to jump off a two-story building. In this moment she is literally pleading with you to save her.
What not to do when separation anxiety settles in
Because separation anxiety can throw a real wrench into settling your child into school, we can sometimes make the mistake of trying to hurry it along or squash it down. Here are some common missteps that you should try to avoid.
Do not try to reason with separation anxiety. Trying to prove your child wrong by telling them that school is fun, playing with friends is great, and hot lunch is awesome, is never going to actually convince them that they will be okay. Why? Rational thought is not part of separation anxiety.
Avoid trying to solve separation anxiety with sink or swim approaches. Forcing a child to face their biggest fear to make them realize there is nothing to be afraid of is highly problematic. There is a very significant risk of the child being utterly flooded by alarm, which can lead to other problems. One such problem is that they could numb out to the fear – and everything else. Psychologists call this dissociation. It is the brain’s way of protecting the child from overwhelming upset. This makes learning and social interactions hard. It can also be why parents hear the classic “she was fine as soon as you left” feedback.
The second is that while the child holds it together for that particular day, the survival brain has now been alerted to the impending threat of your swift departure. So if you thought today’s resistance at the classroom door was hard, just you wait to see what is coming tomorrow.
Do not use rewards or consequences. The use of rewards or consequences has the central flaw of assuming that this “behavior” is within the child’s control. It is not. It is an instinctual reaction from the survival centre of the brain and is highly alarming for the child in an utterly consuming way.
Avoid shaming. Sometimes adults try to use “alarm against alarm” by shaming a child. Using language like “you are acting like a baby” or calling upon social judgment with something like “everybody is looking at you” causes the child to be even more alarmed which can lead to numbing out and intensified behavioral push-back, as described above. It also comes at the cost of the child’s relational connection with you. You no longer feel safe.
Avoid anger. Separation anxiety sometimes alarms parents as well. What if my child isn’t normal? What if everybody is judging me? As a parent’s alarm gets the better of them, anger can erupt. The child experiences this as a “relational disconnect” – something upsetting to them at the best of times, but potentially catastrophically so during separation anxiety, when the child is instinctually driven to connect to us to preserve themselves.
What you can do to help your child with separation anxiety
Being the expert on your child’s personality and temperament, and combining that with some knowledge about the survival brain and general child development, there are actually a lot of things you can do as a parent to help your child who might be struggling with separation anxiety.
- Artful introductions. As a basic principle of social psychology, we tend to like people who like us. You can facilitate an understanding of a blossoming fondness between your child and his teacher, making it more comfortable for your child to be left in the care of the teacher. It might sound something like “did you see the smile on Ms. Robinson’s face this morning when she said hello to you? I think she is taking a shine to you!” Or maybe to the teacher you might say “Michael came home yesterday and all he could talk about was how much he likes the stories you tell in class – I think he is really enjoying you!”
- Birds of a feather. Look for a common ground between your child and her teacher. Maybe they both love reading mystery novels. Or maybe the both play guitar. Or maybe they are both science junkies. Find something that is the same between them and shine a light on it. As another basic principle of social psychology, we also tend to like people who are the same as us.
- Pass the connection spark. Your child is going to take his cues from you in terms of what is safe and not safe. It helps for your child to see that your connection with his teacher is solid and positive. So be certain that you are tending to that as you work to have your child be more settled in the classroom.
- Be certain and confident. It is hard as a parent to watch your child go to pieces. As part of your wiring, you are going to want to rush in and solve it. Every child is their own individual and as a parent, you will have to step your way forward in a manner inspired by your child’s needs. Whatever this looks like for you, step forward with gumption and swagger so your child can just “smell” that you’ve got this.
- Script it. Make sure you tell your child the whole sequence of what will happen from beginning until end in the day. And have the end always be “and then I will pick you up.” By giving your child a specific sequence of events that ends with a reconnection you take the guesswork out of the day. It is also very helpful for anxious kids if you can make that script visual – write it out or use pictures.
- Go to school “with” them. Find ways to be at school with your child figuratively. For example, send magic kisses captured in a locket that hangs around their neck. Or be connected by an invisible string. Or laminate a little picture of you loving on your child that they can tuck into their pocket. Be creative!
- Highlight “hello” rather than “goodbye.” Spend as little time as possible focused on all the things the child is going to do through the school day. Instead, orient the child’s brain to when you will be back together again. So maybe it sounds like “We will walk to school, Mr. Smith will meet us at your classroom door, I will help you get settled, you will have your school day, and then as soon as art is over I will be coming back to pick you up and we will go for a play at the park on our way home.”
- Have some goodbye rituals. Do you have a way you say goodbye? Is it a family cheer in the car in the parking lot? A wink and an ear-tug on your way out the door that your child does back to you? A little saying you whisper into each other’s ear? Routines and rituals help our brains stay calm. Come up with a goodbye ritual to serve this quieting purpose for your child.
- Try a gradual entry. If you have the sense that your child is really going to struggle with separation anxiety, or if you can see that this is already not going well you might try gradually extending the time your child spends in the classroom over a period of days or weeks. Click HERE for an idea of how that works.
Tears are lovely
One of the universal proximity seeking behaviors of children the world over is crying. When our children cry, it us unsettling to us, driving us to stay close and take care of the tears. Sometimes this becomes confusing though when we find ourselves rushing to prevent tears because we don’t want the experience – for them or for us – of being unsettled. But the goal of “no tears” is not necessarily one you want to hang on to. Sometimes tears are actually a necessary part of adaptation and core to nurturing resilience in your growing child. Your sign of “success” in settling your child is not necessarily going to be a tear-free drop off. It is okay if your child cries at the classroom door as long as there is a nurturing, connected adult available to support your child through those tears.
Shy is healthy
Children who are come across as “shy” often have a more difficult time with separation anxiety. And sometimes this has us thinking about “shy” as a bad thing. But answer this question: Do you want your child doing the bidding of someone who is not part of her inner circle? Of course the answer is “no.”
Luckily, children are wired to resist the influence of outsiders. That resistance is what we call shyness. It is a lovely, normal, instinctual, healthy thing that we need to honor. If your child happens to be more sensitive, intense, or otherwise needs a little extra TLC, her shyness may come out more strongly, making the experience of separation anxiety more likely. And that’s okay. It needs to be worked with rather than against.
What if it never gets better?
The vast majority of children will respond well to the efforts described here, and you should see your child comfortably settling into the classroom within 3-4 weeks of the school year start. However, a small percentage of children will continue to struggle.
How do you know when enough is enough and it has simply become too much?
- If it continues for longer than the first month of school with intensity
- If you are seeing significant behavioral repercussions at home
- If your child’s sleep has become interrupted in a significant way
- If your child cannot manage to be alone anywhere in your home
- If your child develops physical health ailments that appear to be psychosomatic in nature (the mind-body connection) – headaches, stomachaches, frequent vomiting, ongoing virus, etc.
These are all signs that things are not progressing and that it might be time to find a professional to help support you as you work to support your child. In selecting somebody for that role, make sure they have a strong understanding of child development and that they are prepared to work together with you – the expert on your child – leading the way.
Now swagger on. You’ve got this. Focus on your child’s core need for connection and honor this as you find your way through.
See more articles from Dr. Vanessa Lapointe in our Parenting Corner.