Separation Anxiety

By: James P. Krehbiel

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?

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:

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, and a cognitive-behavioral therapist practicing in Scottsdale, Arizona. He can be reached through his website at

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