Durban - It’s normal for your young child to feel anxious when you say goodbye. However, the pain of separation generally becomes more manageable as a child gets older. But in a minority of cases, the anxiety persists despite the parents’ best efforts. This makes it difficult for the child to adjust to school. If the anxiety lasts for weeks rather than days, it may indicate a deeper problem called separation anxiety disorder.
Now that a new school year is about to begin, it is important for parents and teachers to distinguish between the two conditions.
Reassurance can help settle your child when you leave him at school on the first day. Credit: sxc.hu
Dealing with separation anxiety in its milder form
Parents generally ease their child’s separation anxiety by being patient and consistent, and by gently, but firmly, setting limits. Reassure your child that he will be just fine. If he so desires, let him take a familiar object with him to school. This could be a favourite blanket or something that belongs to the parent, such as a scarf or a photo. When the child misses his parent, he can touch or hold on to the transitional object to remind himself that his parent will be back soon.
When you leave, do so without undue fuss. Tell him you are leaving and that you will return to fetch him – then leave. Don’t dither unnecessarily!
After school, encourage your child to talk about the day’s activities, and really listen to what he says. Ask things like “What was fun? What was not fun?”
Keep in mind that children often love to exaggerate about how badly other children behaved or how mean the teacher was. Make allowance for this when assessing his day’s moans and groans.
If you hear that something was difficult at school, let him know that you understand that there are some things at school that are difficult but you’re proud that he is trying. Tell him that tomorrow will be a new and, hopefully, better day.
These suggestions often do the trick and most kids soon settle down and become successful learners.
Separation anxiety disorder
Separation anxiety disorder, however, is more serious. The child shows a worrying degree of distress and is particularly difficult to console when he is away from his primary caregiver.
However, since both forms of anxiety share many of the same symptoms, it can be confusing when trying to decide if your child just needs time, patience and understanding, or whether he has a more serious problem that may need professional intervention.
Some signs of separation anxiety disorder
The child is terrified that some harm will befall his loved one. He may report having scary dreams about getting lost. As a result, he is reluctant to fall asleep.
He often shadows his loved one around the house.
He may complain of physical ailments like headaches when the time for separation comes, often holding on to the caregiver’s arm or leg if she attempts to step out.
He displays age-inappropriate clinginess or tantrums and shows excessive fear of leaving home.
These behaviours could be triggered by changes in the environment like moving to a new home or school, or the loss of a loved one (or pet).
Some children feed off the anxieties of an overprotective parent.
Professional treatment for separation anxiety disorder may include psychotherapy, play therapy, family counselling and, if required, medication.
Dr Anand Ramphal is an educational psychologist with special interests in career counselling and the learning and behavioural problems of children and adolescents. Visit www.ramphaledupsych.co.za