Tackling separation anxiety among children

Some children can have physical symptoms, nausea, stomach aches, headaches or a racing heartbeat.
Representative image
Representative image

BENGALURU: Transitioning from an extended vacation back to school is a significant change for kids. Many parents are unsure about how to handle the anxiety as their children return to school.

Separation anxiety is a common phenomenon that occurs in children between 18 months and three years. During this stage, children may show signs of distress, such as crying, fear of being separated from their parents and reluctance to accompany others. But if the symptoms continue or arise after four years and persist, it can be Separation Anxiety Disorder.

Separation Anxiety Disorder can unfold in different ways. Children may persistently refuse to go to school or participate in activities without their parents, they may refuse to sit alone or even eat food. Some children can have physical symptoms, nausea, stomach aches, headaches or a racing heartbeat.

They may experience frequent nightmares where they are separated from their loved ones. Children may feel rusty when interacting with people outside their family. Preparing for separation anxiety starts around the age of four, but preparations should begin earlier, at three. Early preparations involve engaging children in activities that promote independence without their parents. These are:

Involvement in activities: Enrol children in school activities and take them to places like parks where they can interact with peers

Short-term exposures: Gradually separate them for short periods, ensuring they are safe among trustworthy people.

Keep promises: To build trust, always keep promises made to children

Daycare experiences: Daycares play a crucial role as they help children understand that their parents will return, fostering a sense of security

School preparations: Schools can help by organising camp sessions before the official start date. These sessions allow children to familiarise themselves with the new environment

Parental visits: Inviting children and their parents to visit the school before the start date helps them explore the classroom and interact with teachers

By showing care and being approachable, teachers can help reduce children’s anxiety. Parents can introduce learning activities to develop a routine

Role-playing: This can be an effective way to prepare children for school. For instance, children can pretend to be teachers with toys as students or engage in role reversals with parents.

Medication and therapy: For severe cases, medication may be considered if the child’s performance is significantly affected. Psychotherapy is usually the first step for children. Some parents may have anxiety disorders like generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) and anxious-avoidant personality which can induce anxiety in the child as well. Taking steps to tackle their anxiety can reduce the child’s anxiety as well. 

By dealing with patience and understanding, parents can help their child navigate through these challenging emotions and transition effectively. 

(The writer is clinical psychologist at Prayatna Centre For Child Development)

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