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SEPARATION ANXIETY: Letting go is hard to do

As children go back to school this fall, many will start a new chapter in their lives: preschool.

It is natural and normal for young children to feel some effects of separation anxiety when they first leave their parents to attend preschool.

But when are the symptoms so severe that they are abnormal?

Separation anxiety is a normal part of child development, but your child may display symptoms of a more serious condition called separation anxiety disorder.

Some normal and even healthy signs of separation anxiety may be tantrums, crying, and even holding on and not wanting to let go of a parent.

Most children show stronger signs of anxiety when developing a new routine that separates the parent from the child, but these symptoms should subside as the child becomes more comfortable in their new surroundings.

Dr. Judith Horvath, a local child psychologist with the Florida Center for Brain and Mind located in Sebring, said, “It is normal for children to display some signs of separation anxiety as long as the symptoms fall within certain criteria. Moving from middle school to high school may bring back some regressive feelings of separation and some children may move backward in development.”

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There are more incidents of separation anxiety and symptoms in the transition from home to school either in preschool or kindergarten than in the later grades.

“Roughly only 4 percent of children suffer from separation anxiety disorder, though many children may have mild symptoms of separation anxiety. Parents should contact a clinician if symptoms extend past a week or two after a major change in a child’s life,” Horvath said.

Another significant occurrence in the lives of children who suffer from separation anxiety disorder are parents who are going through a major life change such as divorce.

“Oftentimes during a divorce, children may begin sleeping in the bed of their parents if one parent is absent. This is usually something to make the parent feel better and isn’t in the best interest of the child. It is most often the parent who is holding on or clinging to the child,” Horvath said.

This type of situation is best treated by visiting a trained clinician who will work with the parent and the child to discover the true cause behind the child’s separation anxiety. “Often parents need to get a handle on their own anxiety before they are able to help their children,” Horvath said.

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With normal separation anxiety, there are some strategies parents can implement to ease the pain.

♦ Practice separation by leaving your child with a caregiver for short periods of time prior to a long separation.

♦ Make sure your child feels comfortable physically before leaving them. Practice the separation after a meal and when they are rested.

♦ Say goodbye the same way every time. Develop a routine for saying goodbye and stick to it.

♦ Leave your child with the same caregiver.

♦ Leave simply without giving in to the protest of your child.

If your child’s separation anxiety becomes so severe it interferes with activities, then this may be a sign of a more serious problem.

Separation anxiety disorder is not a normal part of childhood development, but may be a sign of a more severe emotional problem. This condition in a child may be triggered by extreme distress and can be unhealthy for the child if untreated. Some children may fake illnesses or even become physically ill because of the disorder.

Some symptoms of separation anxiety disorder may include:

♦ Fears something terrible will happen to the primary caregiver during the absence of the child, causing a permanent separation.

♦ Nightmares about scary occurrences within the child’s life.

These symptoms may be caused by the following:

♦ Changes in the environment of the child.

♦ Stress.

♦ Overprotective parents who may make the child anxious.

♦ A traumatic event in the child’s life.

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Dawn Smith has been a preschool teacher for 14 years and hasn’t seen a child with true separation anxiety disorder.

“Usually a lack of a morning routine may cause a child to be anxious. Rushing out of the house without a consistent structure may cause a child to have anxiety and cry,” Smith said.

Smith works at First Baptist Church of Sebring Preschool, where she has witnessed many children display signs of separation anxiety. “Most of the children are able to become engaged in an activity and overcome their anxiety,” Smith said. “The best advice I can give is for parents to have a routine.”

She also said it is a good idea for parents to show children how excited they are for school the night before, and keep their goodbyes short and sweet.

Some children who cry may encourage the parting parent to linger longer than necessary. “The parents who continue to say ‘I love you’ to their children after the child has calmed down and become engaged in the morning activity at school are really doing more harm than good. Once the child is already engaged, the last words from the parent seemed to upset them more,” Smith said.

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There are some ways to treat and manage separation anxiety disorder in children. Some quick tips to make sure your child is ready to go to preschool in the fall without the stress of separation may include:

♦ Educate yourself about separation anxiety disorder.

♦ Respect your child’s feelings when they express distress.

♦ Set limits and household rules about separation procedures. Understand your child but be firm about expectations.

♦ Be prepared for the separation transition. Make your child feel prepared as well.

♦ Offer your child choices (clothing, school supplies, etc.) so they feel somewhat in control of the situation.

♦ Stay calm as the parent. Children may feel anxious if you show signs of stress.

♦ Praise your child if they handle the separation well.

“Children wear what their parents wear. If the parents are weepy about the child starting school, the child will usually cry,” Smith said. “Children have a tendency to mimic their parents so the more stressed the parents appear to be, the more anxious the child will be. If the parents are positive, the child will be positive as well.”