Life Mothers & Babies

Saturday 23 August 2014

David Coleman: My daughter has separation anxiety and I'm dreading back-to-school

David Coleman

Published 22/08/2011 | 05:00

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My five-year-old daughter has developed severe separation anxiety to the point where play-dates, parties or even going out to play with neighbours' children have become impossible unless I or my husband stay with her.

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She has always been a very cautious child, and worries about most things, but in the past six months it seems to have escalated. She started junior infants last year and her first year in school went relatively smoothly, with the odd morning upset here and there, but nothing I hadn't expected.

We went abroad in May for 10 days. It was the second time we went on holidays with her granny since her grandad died, but the first time to share a room with her granny. My daughter was very close to her grandad.

From about two weeks before we went, she seemed to revert to being really anxious. On holiday she was extremely clingy. There was no chance of her going to the children's club and she just always seemed to be very nervous.

She returned to school after the holiday and unfortunately things were worse than ever. She walked up to school with her little sister, but then after her kiss and hug goodbye, she had a total meltdown.

This usually involved me trying to calm her down for the best part of 10 minutes; some days I would have to get a teacher to bring her down to her classroom.

As you can imagine, I'm not looking forward to September. I don't want her to be upset going into school and I feel I'm not treating the situation correctly for her. Any guidance you can give me would be so helpful.

I just want my daughter to enjoy her childhood and not fret about everything. She did say to me recently that she hopes that Daddy and I will last. When I asked her what she meant she said that she doesn't want us to die. My heart nearly broke.

David replies:

It can be very upsetting to think that your child is weighed down by worries and stresses. However, most children will worry about things to a greater or lesser extent and part of their learning in life is to discover that they can cope and succeed, even when they are worried or anxious to start.

Regular readers will know how important I believe our role-modelling is for children. It is not the only influencing factor but it is an important factor in influencing their subsequent behaviour.

Role-modelling can and does occur with separation anxiety. Many parents give off subtle (and sometimes overt) emotional signals to their children that they, too, are worried about how things will be.

If your daughter picks up that you are worried about whether she will be able to cope with new situations, or situations where she has to manage without you then she, too, will be confirmed in her beliefs that she can't cope without you.

This can become a cyclical problem where a child's natural separation anxiety provokes anxiety in a parent and the parent's anxiety then exacerbates the worry that the child has and so on.

The good news for you and your daughter is that you know she coped very well in school for the first eight months of the year. It sounds like there was something destabilising about the holiday for her and it threw her routines.

I would imagine that sharing the room with her granny, while nice, reminded her strongly of her grandad who had died. This re-focusing on his death, in her head, may have brought up natural worries about death and dying and what that means.

All of her recent worrying may have been triggered by her grief or her natural anxiety about death. Talking with her about death and about her feelings about her grandad may really help her.

In other practical ways, the key to a less stressful return to school will be your attitude. Your approach and mood will be central to supporting your daughter's natural coping mechanisms. Going back to school may well be difficult for her and it may well be upsetting for a short period of time. This distress doesn't mean that she can't and won't cope.

While you should be able to empathise with her anxiety (ie, understand and recognise her worries) you need to avoid sympathising with it.

Sympathy is where you share a common feeling with someone. There is no need for you to share in her worry because you have the evidence from previous experience that she can and does settle fine without you, once you have gone.

So, when it comes to play-dates, or the return to school, your approach should be similar. Have the other parent or her teacher primed in advance so that you can do a direct handover. Then, when you hand her over, leave immediately, no matter what her response is.

Most of her visible distress at the prospect of separating from you (and her dad) is her attempt to hook you in to staying with her (and not abandoning her as she may perceive it). There will always be more drama, for your benefit, for as long as you are present.

If she has also learned through experience that these tears do effectively keep you close then they will be repeated every time, as her expectation will be that if she really protests you won't leave her.

She will gain confidence from being (safely) in the world without you or her dad and that confidence will breed further confidence. The starting point is for you to acknowledge that she does get worried about leaving you but that you have confidence in her ability to cope.

The best way is for you not only to voice that confidence, but to show it in your warm but firm decisions to say goodbye and smile as you leave. When you go, don't look back and don't check up on her. Assume that her carer will contact you if things turn really bad!

Then, every time you pick her up you can reinforce how well she did, even though she was upset initially. Time, patience and a belief in your daughter's ability to cope will help her to become a more confident child. Giving her a chance to express the insecurity that fears of death produces might also free her up to feel more secure when separate from you.

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