Saturday, August 14, 2010 // Amy Quinn
In other words, there are certain children who simply are born anxious.
“Different kids have different strengths and weaknesses,” said Kristen Davis-Coelho, a psychologist for Renown Behavioral Health in Reno. “Some are much more adventurous, really like new experiences, and other ones are a little more tentative. Sometimes it can surprise a parent.”
Biology or not, family psychologist and syndicated columnist John Rosemond said he believes parents almost always play a significant role in the problem.
“When you find a child of school age, kindergarten, first grade, it is almost always associated with parents and specifically a mother who has had difficulty separating from the child from day one,” he said.
The good news? In most cases, separation anxiety is quickly reversible. Davis-Coelho said only about 5% of children suffer from separation anxiety disorder, a severe form that lasts longer than a few weeks.
Bravo said children who are prone to anxiety tend to do better when they know what to expect each day, so she suggests getting them settled into a predictable schedule early.
“The child would have their time to eat, their time to go to sleep,” she said. “Maybe a couple of weeks before they start school, they can start a new routine that won’t change when school starts.”
Davis-Coelho agreed that advance parental planning can make a big difference. She said parents can do other little things, too, like drive their child to school before classes even start.
“Show them where you’re going to be dropping them off, where they’re going to get to play at recess,” she said. “Or pretending. Playing school. Actually getting the toys, having the kid be the teacher and the parent be the teacher. Playing school bus if they’re going to be riding the school bus, where they walk down to where their bus stop is and the parent pulls up in their car and pretends to be the school bus.”
The goal, she said, is to make school feel familiar, so the transition is less difficult.
Rosemond said his approach to treating separation anxiety is unorthodox because he actually recommends against prolonged conversations about a child’s issues.
“Most professionals are going to tell parents to reassure the child and sit down and talk to the child,” he said. “I am absolutely convinced, and my experience confirms this, that the more you talk to the child about the problem, the worse it gets.”
So, who’s right?
Davis-Coelho said she believes different strategies work with different children. Ultimately, it’s up to parents to decide what approach is resonating with their child.
One thing everyone agrees on is that parents should nip meltdowns in the bud. That means the best thing a parent can do if their child is crying is leave.
“The parents have got to say, ‘We’ve talked about this, and we’re not going to talk about it anymore. You’re going into class, and I’m leaving,’” Rosemond says. “It’s got to be very, very short and sweet.”
Bravo and Davis-Coelho agree.
“Keeping the amount of time that you let that go on to a minimum is important,” Davis-Coelho said. “The longer the child is feeling that level of panic and upset, the more the memory is getting burned into their head at how awful it is.”
Planning an exit
Although it’s difficult to leave a child in tears, Rosemond said parents need to be tough.
“These parents have this anxiety that this reflects some deep-seated psychological issue that has to be resolved,” he said. “I say to parents, ‘No, there’s no deep-seated psychological issue here at all. It’s just that this child has never learned to comfortably separate from you because of your anxieties. You have to be the actor here. You have to suck it up. The minute the child sees that you have no anxieties whatsoever, the child’s going to be fine. Even if the child cries … it’s no problem. The schools are used to dealing with these things.’”
Experts say that most anxious children will stop crying within 15 to 20 minutes of their parents’ departure, and they will then join the class.
“Eventually, they’ll calm down,” Bravo said. “Some kids will be different than others if they have a different temperament. … The parent has to be really firm and just leave and let the teacher take care of it. Many times, just 10, 15 minutes later, they will go away and the child will slowly get used to the new environment.”
The day after
Often, the first day is the toughest, but Davis-Coelho said parents also can take steps to make the rest of the week go smoothly.
“The first strategy you can use is developing what I call a special ritual in the morning between you and your child,” she said, “a particular way of saying goodbye. A phrase that you both repeat to each other about seeing each other later. A special handshake. Some sort of ritual in the morning. … Every morning you say goodbye in that particular way.”
Most children will have conquered their separation anxiety within a month, experts say. If the problem drags on, there might be a broader problem.
“If it’s interfering with their functioning or with the family’s functioning, if it’s causing a lot of stress or interfering with them going to school, making friends, probably at that point therapy should be sought,” Davis-Coelho said.
In the unlikely case that it comes to that, Bravo said parents should consider a family appointment because the child could be reacting to something unexpected.
“Look at if there are any major changes going on in the family, for instance divorce, moving to a different neighborhood, different school, someone who died recently,” she said. “If the parents think that this is a problem, you know, the separation anxiety is becoming a problem, I would recommend they seek treatment that includes family therapy because many times the child is just reflecting something else that’s going on in the family.”
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