When I was working as an elementary school counselor, I had a parent who brought her second grader to me due to an excessive fear of attending school. The mother would drive the youngster to school because the child was afraid to take the school bus and dreaded attending class.
The child would ask to leave class frequently due to stomach aches and would be sent to the nurses' office. After visiting the nurse, she would get on the phone and plead with her mother to come to the school and take her home. Frequently, the mother would feel sorry for her daughter and consent to pick her up from school and take her home for the day. Then the process of fear and anticipatory anxiety would cycle as the child reluctantly prepared for the next day of school.
What I have described is not an uncommon scenario. Often, children experience separation anxiety in the process of experiencing everyday tasks. The pattern starts with the child avoiding an independent task and then developing increased fear and anxiety in the process of avoiding it. A cycle of separation anxiety emerges out of the child's need to cling dependently to a parent and resist age-appropriate self-directed behavior.
Like the second grader who finally made it to my office for assistance, most children experiencing separation anxiety complain of somatic symptoms. Their emotional conflict gets played out as physical ailments such as headaches, stomach aches, heart- palpitations, sweating, and shallow breathing fostering hyperventilation. These symptoms will then become the primary focus for the child and/or parent, and will be used as an excuse for avoiding specific socially appropriate behaviors.
The key to managing separation anxiety involves changing the interactional pattern for the child and family. What are some factors that intensify the problem of separation anxiety and what can be done about it?
- Anxious, enabling adults promote dependent children. Never show that you are afraid for your children when they are placed within new responsibilities. If you take your child to daycare, drop him off and leave promptly! If your child displays fear about another familiar adult touching or holding him, back off and give your child an opportunity to get acclimated. If your child calls home because she is school phobic, let the school handle the problem without interference.
- Couples who have a strained relationship will often triangulate with their child. This means, one partner may use the child to meet her needs. I have counseled couples whose relationship was so dysfunctional that a child was permitted to sleep in the parent's bed. A parent will excuse this behavior as "normal" nurturing.
- In divorce situations, a parent may dependently cling to a child as a way of assuaging guilt or calming psychic pain. The parent may also use the child as a pawn in the nasty game of manipulation directed toward the ex-partner.
Separation anxiety is typically the byproduct of a family system where the parents are overly-protective, anxious, and needy. They are continuously worried or fearful for their children. They protect them from new experiences, frustration, and pain. They are scared to let their children feel afraid or experience disappointment and mistakes. In the process of trying to keep them out of harms way, they compound the problem by actually placing their children in greater emotional jeopardy. Unknowingly, they teach their children that people and life are not to be trusted and that they need to be protected by their parents. Here are some ideas on what can be done to alter the pattern of separation anxiety:
- Permit your children to launch out and experience new adventures and activities.
- Don't let your children's fear keep you from nudging them into the unknown of experience. Risk-taking is an important quality in the process of developing independence.
- Don't let your children off the hook when they have misbehaved. Let them experience the logical consequences of their actions.
- Let your children learn through failure, mistakes, and disappointment.
- Never use your kids to meet your own emotional needs. They will learn to resent it and will feel trapped by their need to support you.
- Be firm about your limits when it comes to children managing their anxiety. Don't rescue them from moving forward in spite of fear no matter how difficult it may be for you to observe.
- Don't let anxious children pick up cues that you are fearful for them. Maintain a certain degree of detachment when you children experience psychological pain.
- Don't get hooked into your children's temper tantrums. Remove yourself from their negative behavior, it will eventually diminish.
Parents may need counseling assistance in order to learn new ways of responding to a child who uses fear and anger as a method of avoiding social contact. For parents, changing interactional patterns will take time, patience and determination. At first, you can expect a counter-reaction from your child. He will bulk at the changes that you are trying to establish. Stay firm and consistent and your child will eventually "get on board."
James P. Krehbiel is an author, contributing writer to familyresource.com, and a cognitive-behavioral therapist practicing in Scottsdale, Arizona. He can be reached through his website at krehbielcounseling.com.