Separation anxiety occurs when an individual experiences worry or fear when they are forced to be away from other individuals whom they have strong emotional attachment to. Separation anxiety is an anxiety disorder that can be experienced by people of all ages but is mostly common among infants and small children. Children as young as six to seven months old to three years old often experience separation anxiety at least once in their childhood. There is a difference between separation anxiety disorder or commonly known as SAD with normal anxiety disorder. Children who experience separation anxiety in their earliest years indicate healthy advancements and cognitive maturation. Parents should not regard this as a sign of behavioural problems. SAD, on the other hand, is an excessive display of fear and distress when faced with situations of separation from home and/or a specific attachment figure like a parent or close family member.
The severity of separation anxiety can range from anticipatory uneasiness to full-blown tantrums that can sometimes turn the child to resort to violent and aggressive behaviour. In this article, I will be focusing on normal separation anxiety that children usually experience when it is time for them to start attending kindergarten. This is a useful guide for parents and even teachers who have to deal with children who are experiencing separation anxiety from time to time. What teachers need to understand when handling children with separation anxiety is that children often suffer from it because there exists an association between the provider of needs with the parental figure. Children get anxious as soon as their moms and dads drop them off at school because the mind thinks that because when these important figures in their life are absent, their needs will be ignored. This mindset is what causes fear which eventually leads to their behaviour of rejecting their teachers or caregivers.
This is also why, as I’ve mentioned, separation anxiety is commonly experienced by younger children, because older children are able to comprehend the idea of “going to school” and are aware that their moms and dads will come to pick them up after school ends. Younger children have yet to grasp this concept, causing unnecessary stress and fear. The best ways to deal with this situation are:
I’m not saying you need to dump your kids somewhere. The idea here is to practice with your children getting used to being away from you – their parents. You can start by sending them off to their grandparents’ place over weekends or allow them to have playdates over their relatives’ place. Over time, your child will understand the concept of a “drop-off” and eliminate the feeling of fear when it is time for them to step into kindergarten.
When dropping off your child at school, be specific as to when and what time you will return to pick them up from school. Now, most younger children have yet to learn the concept of time and are unable to look at the clock to tell the time. So, refer to the class timetable and say something like this, “I will arrive after you’ve had your nap and snacks”. By being specific and descriptive, your child will know when to expect your arrival by observing their routine at school. This keeps them assured and gives some kind of certainty. In case you’re running late, call up their teacher to ask how your child is doing and tell the teacher to inform your child in case he/she starts asking about you.
This is a common mistake that all parents do, especially with their first born children. What usually happens is that the parent sends the child to school, the child starts crying as soon as he/she arrives at the school gate but the parent refuses to leave and lingers around at school which actually makes the situation worse. When you do this, your child will start to think that crying and screaming will make you stay. When you reinforce this idea into your child’s mindset, it will be harder and more difficult for your child to separate from you and attend school. This will not only be difficult for you but also for the teachers as crying children disrupts the entire class.
Be consistent. If you practice all the above and be consistent with it, your child’s separation anxiety will easily be managed. Your child’s teachers will thank you for it too.
It is not common for normal separation anxiety to linger around for long periods of time as children will quickly adapt to school where what used to feel foreign will soon turn familiar. As your child starts to make new friends and gets comfortable with their caregivers and kindergarten teachers, you will be surprised how your child will begin to show enthusiasm by looking forward to coming to school. If your child’s separation anxiety persists and rejects attending school entirely, it is advised for you to be more observant of what’s happening at school in case there is bullying or abuse involved. If everything looks fine, consider seeking help from a specialist for a proper diagnosis as your child might be suffering from SAD.