Coping With Separation Anxiety in Older Children

Before I start this post I want to point out that I am not a trained expert in this, but I have had years of stressful panicky experience of it with one of my own children. Out of respect for my child’s privacy I won’t be telling you which of my children I am referring to, and I will also be including experiences of friends as well, so not all of this is something from my own child.

Separation anxiety

Most parents will have some experience of separation anxiety in their child, whether that was when they were a baby and cried when you left the room, them not wanting you to leave on their first day of nursery/playgroup/school/college (I so hope I don’t get to experience the last one and nor do you!) and so I am sure most of you understand the hopelessness or guilt that you can feel.

The thing is, unless you actually are that parent who is abandoning your child on a doorstep somewhere and running off (in which case you are highly unlikely to be reading anything about helping your child), then you are not purposefully abandoning your child.

There is no way that your child can stay attached to you for life, and at some point they will need to get used to you having to leave, and to them having to be in different places without you.

Most children get over separation anxiety in the first two or three years of school or nursery, if you are lucky some only take a few days or weeks. They get used to being left, and get used to the idea that they can trust that you will be coming back to get them or someone else will.

Unfortunately for some children, the anxiety doesn’t go away. Some children find it hard to be left even as they get older, and can continue to feel a panic coming on as they see you leave or if they need to go off somewhere themselves. It can get to the point where you yourself feel a sick ache in your stomach as you pull up to drop them off somewhere.

So how do you cope with this?!

  • Firstly if they tell you they have a stomach ache or feel ill, don’t tell them they are lying or belittle this. Anxiety is a real thing, and the stress and worry can actually make you feel real physical symptoms. Instead talk to them about what’s worrying them and explain to them that whilst they may actually feel ill it is just the worry inside them and if they are brave the bad feeling will start to lessen.
  • Write a list together of anything that may be worrying them about school or anywhere else they are going. Talking can help you to understand what is going on in their busy heads more, and sometimes a few of the things that worry them are things that you can actually fix or help them to get used to.

For example, if on their list they have said they worry because they get to school just before the bell and they panic about being late and being told off, then leave for school a little earlier.

If they worry that they will forget something and get told off, then make a checklist to tick off each day before you leave for school.

It may be that they are embarrassed to ask out loud to go to the toilet at school, or where they are off to. With this one, you can write them a clear note for them to show the teacher/other parent etc which simply says ‘Please may I go to the toilet’ or ‘I am feeling a bit shy can I please go to the toilet’.

A good idea is to go in to see your child’s teacher or teachers and explain the shyness and the panic and let them know that your child would like to use a note or something that they hold up rather than asking out loud for something. Eventually your child will hopefully be brave enough to ask out loud for anything, but in the mean time it’s all about getting them happier and less likely to refuse to go somewhere, or to let you leave.

  • Do everything in steps and stages. If they aren’t happy for you to leave until the bell goes for them to go in to school, then stay with them at first until they get more used to going in. Then gradually leave 1 minute before the bell goes, then build up the minutes. Or if this is too stressful for them, state that you will stay but you will stand a little away from them and each day get a little further away.

If they get you to walk them to their classroom, each day stop one step away from the classroom whilst they go in, eventually they will be going in alone for you – I hope!

If they are still at primary and you are having to actually go in to the class and stay with them (not many secondary schools would allow this I don’t think) then the same steps logic applies, do it in stages. Stay for a little less time each day, sit a little bit further away from them each day.

  • Do not feel bad (I know you still will as I’ve been there and lost a coat pocket or two in my time) if the teacher has to physically restrain your child from following you out of school, or has to physically remove your child from you.

You are not forcing your child to stay at school as a punishment or to be mean, it is for their own good and so that they can get an education. Keep reminding yourself that you are not doing a bad thing to them, and that you need to be strong for them.

Also if they upset you, which sadly they probably will at this time, then hold your tears in until you’re in the car or at home – says the woman who has cried on at least 4 primary school teachers in her time, but managed to hide it from my son. Seeing you upset will upset them more.

If you really worry about this method, then have a teacher or assistant ring you once things have calmed down. Most of the times, once your child has realised being upset won’t result in them coming home, then they tend to calm down.

  • With older children who refuse to get out of the car, and whom you are not strong enough to physically force out of the car things get a bit more tricky. However, there are ways to make this easier. Agree with a teacher or teaching assistant that they like, that they will meet you at the car. If nothing else at least you will have some support, plus if they still refuse to get out, then they have witnessed it happen and will realise what you are up against.

For some children counselling may be necessary, and if it comes to this it DOES NOT mean you are a failure as a parent or have done anything wrong. Sometimes what our children need, may just be outside of what we can do.

  • Don’t give in to it! This is the most important one as far as I am concerned, if on a day when they get upset about school you allow them to stay home, and don’t even attempt the school run, then I am afraid you are setting a precedent. In future they will think that you will give in, therefore they will be less likely to calm down and just get ready for school.
  • Talk consequences with them, on any day when they don’t go to school maybe say that they won’t be allowed out to play in the evening – whatever you choose as a consequence (bear in mind not to be too harsh as some children really can not help how they feel) stick to it, keep a consistent approach so that they know you mean what you say.
  • Use small rewards to encourage them. For example ‘if you go into school every day this week and stay without me, then at the weekend you can stay up half an hour later/choose a magazine/go out somewhere for the day/have a friend sleepover’ etc. Don’t make the rewards too big, as you don’t want to encourage them to act up in future as they think they will get rewarded massively once they do behave, but give them something to work towards and to look forward to.
  • Play the ‘what if’ game. Don’t worry I’m not suggesting you play some random board game whilst trying to get ready for school, this is just about talking and preparing them.

Children with anxiety are more likely to panic and get upset if they are presented with a situation that they don’t know how to cope with. Depending on your particular child’s worries (all children are different and some of their worries can be very random) let them know what they need to do if something that worries them happens.

Whether this is to talk to the teacher, go to the toilet and run cold water on their wrists to help them calm down (this works for me I have no idea why), talk to a friend, know what to ask when and how to do certain things.

For a child with anxiety in my experience it doesn’t take a lot to ‘spook’ them and for you to get  a phone call saying that they have a tummy ache and want to come home. To not let this happen work to reduce the chances of being spooked.

  • Explain to them what to do or say if someone says something mean to them, explain to them what to do or where to go if it’s all getting a bit too much (discuss this with a teacher first), and make sure you are ultra organised to be sure not to forget anything they need with them, or to do homework.

Most children with anxiety will hate being told off by a teacher or teaching assistant and they may feel this more deeply than other children who are more confident. Make sure your child knows the rules of how they should be behaving, make sure they are on time and have everything they need with them.

BUT also make sure that they know what to do if they do realise they haven’t got something they need and try to make sure you are available on the phone to them if needs be.

Something as small as a forgotten P. E kit can result in your child freaking out and wanting to come home, believe me. We want them organised, ready and raring for school and for some children that will take a lot more work than for others.

My last point but an important one;

  • Involve the school! Let them know how your child is feeling, let them help you and your child where possible. They can work on making your child happier in the classroom and if they are aware of particular anxieties they can help to avoid them, and be quicker to spot when your child is becoming distressed before they reach the point of no return. If nothing else, this one may make you feel less alone if you have a supportive school.

If anyone else has coping strategies or tips that may help anyone in this situation, then please comment below as we go through a lot of different experiences as parents, and if we can help to make it a little easier for someone going through something you’ve already been through then that’s brilliant.

Stevie x Stay Strong!

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54 Comments

  1. Fern
    15 September 2015 / 12:06 pm

    I havnt read the whole thing yet, read upto the bullet points but felt the need to comment..
    I had mega seperation anxiety as a teen, I still suffer terrible anxiety now being in different places and ie 25 in october!

    I used to go to sleepovers at a friends house, me & her where born 3 days apart and had known eachother forever, I was close to her parents and family but every time I went to have a sleepover it ended with my dad being called at 2/3 am because I had thrown up. when I started college I had to get the bus on my own, it caused me so much anxiety I did end up missing a few days as I didnt want to admit it to anyone why I was really feeling the way I did. Even to this day if im getting a bus to somewhere ive not been before I stand at the front of the bus so the driver can tell me when we get there (I did this for ages when I moved to st Austell a few years ago and had to catch a bus between truro college and home.)
    School camps left me feeling ill, I usually got on with them as I wanted to be there so much, but I spent the night awake, watching the ceiling feeling so poorly!

    It was horrific, and thats one of the reasons im so glad both my girls (so far) seem to be really outgoing and comfortable whatever situation. Athough Sassy seems to be getting less outgoing and every time I pick her up from somewhere she says how much she missed me, so maybe she will develop it more as she gets bigger. But having suffered with it myself for so long I hope I will be understanding because mine was partly made worse by the fact that I didnt tell anyone, I always put it down to ‘eating too much at the sleepover’ and not mentioning any of the other times I felt it.

    I’d not wish anxiety of any form on anyone as it can be so debilitating. Anyways off to read the remainder of your post now.

    • 15 September 2015 / 12:16 pm

      Oh Fern lovely, that must have been awful! I used to get picked up from sleepovers and days at friends early as a child due to getting panicky and having to get home straight away…so I know a little of what it feels like. I also know what it’s like to be on the other end of it as the parent, and it can be so hard hence why I wrote the post today to see if I could help anyone else in some little way.
      Stevie x

  2. 15 September 2015 / 12:46 pm

    What a brilliant post. We aren’t at nursery/school stage yet but I have bookmarked this in case we run into problems. I hated school and I think if someone had sat down with me and looked at the reasons why and broken them down as you suggest it would have made it much easier to cope with.

    • 15 September 2015 / 1:24 pm

      Thank you Tara, I really hope you never have to deal with this as a parent. Sorry you had such a tough time with school as well, I always find with my boys if we write a list and tackle a problem together we can usually make things seem a lot better :)

      Stevie x

    • Fern
      16 September 2015 / 11:16 am

      That was one of my issues, I never really admitted why I acted the way I did towards certain situations so noone knew, so I didnt have anyone to say ” hey look its okay, think of it this way, things arnt as bad as you expect them to be” etcetc….

  3. 18 September 2015 / 7:31 am

    I’ve been very lucky with Tyger so far. ASD and anxiety are very closely linked and he is certainly very anxious in some situations so I was worried when he started preschool but the preschool have been fantastic in working with me (well before he even started). He did cry on his first day there…but when I came to pick him up because he didn’t want to leave!

    However, my much younger sister (who also has ASD) suffers from really bad anxiety and she still struggles with going to new places and having to go to college etc. Like you say, my mum has found being in close contact with them help a lot.

    Thanks for the post and thanks for hosting #PicknMix

    • 18 September 2015 / 11:46 am

      I’m so pleased preschool went well for him, it’s always tough with n anxious child but I think sometimes we’re the way more anxious ones as parents ;)

      Stevie x

  4. Sarah
    18 September 2015 / 8:53 am

    Hi, just read this and its an excellent post. It rings true with me because I had some similar issues as a child, you just don’t realise how common it is because people don’t really talk about it. I had a problem with going to the school assembly, I must have been 6 or 7 years old and I just dreaded and dreaded this school assembly every morning. It got to the point where I didn’t want to go to school because this was the first thing that happened everyday and it made me so panicky. Anyway, luckily my Mum was pretty awesome like you and dealt with it swiftly. When she realised what was going on, she talked to my teacher and they came up with a strategy to deal with it. At first I didn’t have to go to assembly at all, I could stay in the classroom and help the teacher – this got me going to school with no worries. Then I had to go for 5 mins/ 10 mins etc and after about 6 months all the worry was gone and I went in with everyone else. Great post #PicknMix

    • 18 September 2015 / 1:29 pm

      Thanks lovely, it makes me so much prouder when he goes on sleepovers etc now and smiles when he goes in to school :)

      Stevie x

  5. 18 September 2015 / 9:19 am

    We’ve had issues especially with me being unwell and it affecting my daughter. I agree that if they are given a situation where they feel they cant cope things get worse. I try to reassure my child as often as i can. It’s something we are working on.

    Angela from daysinbed x

    • 18 September 2015 / 1:31 pm

      It’s definitely not easy!

      Stevie x

  6. 18 September 2015 / 9:44 am

    Really interesting read. I help one day a week at our school, and it is the tummy ache call that the kids know will get them sent home. I see some of them try it throughout the day which is really difficult for the teachers and parents. I appreciate that for some of the children it becomes real because they get themselves into such a state, but others just take it all in and try it on. Both my kids have pulled it once, I was quite harsh, and put them to bed until the next morning, no screens, tea etc, which worked for us, as they haven’t tried it again. It must be horrible for the parents whose children really suffer with separation anxiety, and I think your post offers some really sound advice. Thank you :)

    • 18 September 2015 / 1:33 pm

      Thanks Sarah, whenever my boys have been off school for anything other than a nasty bug I get them to do extra school work, it helps stop them falling behind and less likely to fake it.

      Stevie x

  7. Gemma @ Confessions of a nagging mother
    18 September 2015 / 9:51 am

    What a fab post :) I agree, it shouldn’t be seen as nothing, anxiety and fear are real, true, scary feelings. They are hard to deal with as an adult so children need all the support they can get. I also agree that all thoughts and opinions should be shared with the school, if they know how your child is feeling then it will make such a big difference. These feelings should not be rubbished or ignored.

    #picknmix

    Gemma xxx

    • 18 September 2015 / 1:36 pm

      Thanks lovely, when I was going through a lot of it all of the tips I could find online were for toddlers or small children, so hopefully it might help someone!

      Stevie xx

  8. 18 September 2015 / 10:24 am

    These are great tips – nursery, preschool and now school are going smoothly for us with BB but Little B starts nursery in November and he’s quite a clingy baby… #picknmix

    • 18 September 2015 / 2:16 pm

      Crossed fingers he surprises you and isn’t phased by it ;)

      Stevie x

  9. Becky, Cuddle Fairy
    18 September 2015 / 10:35 am

    This is really great, I love your idea of writing a note for them to show. Anxiety is really common but not talked about & your coping methods are excellent. You are right, seeing a counsellor is not a reflection on the parents. #PicknMix x

  10. 18 September 2015 / 11:20 am

    This isn’t something I’ve really had to deal with just yet as my two have had either myself or their grandparents every day. Not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing though as my eldest starts nursery in January and I have no idea how she’ll cope. This is a great post though and I will keep it to hand when the time comes.

    • 18 September 2015 / 2:26 pm

      I hope it’s not something that you do have to deal with :)

      Stevie x

  11. 18 September 2015 / 12:38 pm

    We are going through a double wammy. One has started school and today screamed as I left her. It had been coming as the last few days she had been getting sadder and sadder and today was epic. The little one (2 next week) is going through the stage as well as his big sister leaving him for school. Its so confusing as what to .I think and hope it will settle down though and I did predict this happening. Thanks for the tips x

    • 18 September 2015 / 2:30 pm

      I so feel for you lovely, it makes you dread the mornings doesn’t it?! Really hope they both settle for you soon,
      Stevie x

  12. 18 September 2015 / 2:43 pm

    Lots of good tips there. I have been very lucky that my children have only mildly displayed separation anxiety, but my friends child has always suffered very badly and still does aged 7. It can be really tough. x

    • 18 September 2015 / 8:41 pm

      Thank you, it can be very hard.

      Stevie x

  13. Tracey Abrahams
    18 September 2015 / 4:13 pm

    This is a great post. I was lucky with my boys, but i have friends who have jad issues and could have done with this sort of advice. #picknmix

  14. 18 September 2015 / 5:44 pm

    This is a great post Stevie! I had terrible separation anxiety as an older child. I remember my dad having to collect me late at night after I’d get myself in a state about being away from home. I was terribly home sick when I went to university. It’s a horrible feeling and not something that’s often talked about. It’s great to raise awareness of this and some great tips here too. Thank you for sharing and for hosting :-) Hx #PicknMix

    • 18 September 2015 / 9:01 pm

      I used to have it a bit as well, I was forever getting dropped home late because I was meant to sleepover and backed out. Luckily I got over it as I got older, but I can still remember how that horrible lump in my stomach and chest felt!

      Stevie x

  15. 18 September 2015 / 5:55 pm

    Really helpful advice. My sister had issues with this (& other complex issues too, but there was significant separation anxiety in there, and it has been suggested by professionals that all of her issues may have stemmed from a severe fear of abandonment) for many years. Pretty much all of our childhood actually. Getting her to school & keeping her there were extremely difficult, and I think this can be a much harder thing to deal with than people who haven’t experienced it realise. It is one of the things that bothers me about action taken against parents over lateness or non-attendance – some cases I have seen have been kids like my sister. & the attitude tends to be ‘lots of kids don’t like going to school, they’ll get over it once there’. Which shows a real lack of understanding of how much more serious the problem can be. We did always get my sister there. But it took several people often & the school had to have sixth formers stand guard to keep her there. She was hyterical, distraught and often violent. It is a very stressful thing to handle. Glad you’ve written about these types of issues. #PicknMix

    • 18 September 2015 / 9:03 pm

      Thanks lovely, with older children it’s harder as they can’t be easily physically forced to get out of the car or stay somewhere and the risk of them hurting themself or someone else is much higher. It’s a really stressful situation for all concerned and luckily we seem to have gotten passed it..though I’ll believe it more in a few months time as I’m still nervous every morning and waiting for a phone call.

      Stevie xx

  16. 18 September 2015 / 7:37 pm

    It’s so hard isn’t it when inside you really want to hang onto them for dear life yet you need them to grow and become confident.Great post as always Stevie xx #picknmix

    • 18 September 2015 / 9:14 pm

      Thanks sweetheart, there was a point when I seriously thought home school was the only option, but with anxieties like this, if they aren’t dealt with properly it can get a lot worse. I’m so so relieved that (hopefully crossed fingers, eyes and toes, no walking under ladders and hiss at the black cat) we’re over that stage now…

      Stevie xx

  17. 18 September 2015 / 7:37 pm

    What great advice. I was diagnosed with post-natal anxiety but looking back I think I have always suffered with it in some way or another and especially when I was little. Really amazing post. Anxiety is a very real thing and not often treated that way #PicknMix xx

    • 18 September 2015 / 9:33 pm

      Thanks lovely it was one of those posts that was quite hard to write as I try to respect the boys’ privacy when it comes to really personal stuff, but at the same time when we were going through hell with this, I could have done with reading a post like this. Anxiety is awful to live with, sorry you had to cope with it hon,

      Stevie xx

  18. 18 September 2015 / 9:08 pm

    I can’t even begin to imagine how tough this is to deal with in older children. M has had separation anxiety quite badly up until very recently. I literally couldn’t leave him anywhere and he would just cry and cry when I left him. It was tough but luckily for me he seems to gave gotten over it and as long as I pre-warn him and tell him whats happening and where I am going he is fine. This is such an excelllent and informative post Stevie – thank you #picknmix

    • 18 September 2015 / 10:22 pm

      I’m so pleased he’s doing better with it hon, as it’s really not fun for anyone and so hard. Your boys are so ridiculously cute, I love seeing them in your posts :)

      Stevie xx

  19. Suz
    18 September 2015 / 9:21 pm

    As always a great read! I feel like that already and mines only 1 year old!! Suz x Beauisblue.com

    • 18 September 2015 / 10:26 pm

      Thanks lovely :)

      Stevie xx

  20. 19 September 2015 / 6:46 pm

    Some excellent points and ideas. I suffer from anxiety as an adult and hadn’t thought about separation anxiety as a condition in the same vein, but it really is. Will bear these points in mind if we go through this as our baby gets older. #pickandmixfridays

    • 20 September 2015 / 3:01 pm

      I really hope you don’t have to go through it, but if you do I hope this helps lovely, and I really hope your anxiety doesn’t stop you from doing anything x

      Stevie x

  21. 21 September 2015 / 8:52 am

    This is a greta post and I will keep it in mind if I ever have problems with my girls in the future, Thankfully at the moment they seem to be fine with whoever I palm them off to! It was me who cried on Little Miss’ first day of nursery!

    (I’m sorry if I comment twice but for some reason my comment got deleted just after I finished typing it!)

    • 21 September 2015 / 9:45 am

      Aw bless you! One of mine had separation anxiety and the other cried when I had to pick him up form his first day of playgroup…as he didn’t want to come home! Only slightly embarrassing ha!

      Stevie x

      • 21 September 2015 / 4:04 pm

        Oh well that’s better than crying on the way in! :)

  22. 24 September 2015 / 10:21 pm

    This is a brilliant post hun! Some great ideas. One of my children, you know which also suffers and I think it will always be something he struggles with. I’m sure it all stems from his Dad leaving but at points it has been horrific! xx

    • 24 September 2015 / 11:15 pm

      Thanks lovely, it’s so hard when they struggle and you see how upset they get. I’m glad both of our boys seem to be coming out the other side of it a bit more now! You also know if you need any one to talk to anytime who knows what it’s like that I’m here!

      Stevie xx

  23. 6 October 2015 / 11:00 am

    This is such a helpful post with doe really good tips. I’m lucky that my kids are all pretty outgoing and adventurous and don’t let things worry them – although strangely my daughter gets anxious at home, mainly about bedtime, but sometimes about eating, and is occasionally sick before bed.
    Thank you for sharing with the Britmums Teen and Tween Round-up.

    • 6 October 2015 / 11:33 am

      Thanks Sarah, it’s a horrible thing to deal with and we had a lot of years of it so I’m hoping our experience and coping tips might help someone else.

      Stevie x

  24. 4 December 2015 / 10:43 pm

    Brilliant blog, will definitely be coming back for more!

  25. Sarah
    5 April 2017 / 8:40 am

    Thank you for writing this. I am currently going through this with my 7 year old, who has always been a confident little girl, it has come completely out of the blue. Some great coping techniques to try with her. Thank you so much, I’m really at a loss with what to do to help her.

    • 5 April 2017 / 4:56 pm

      I really hope that some of them help, I know how hard it can be and even now I still feel a little bit sick myself on the first day of a new term as that always used to be the worst. Crossing my fingers that it’s something that your little one gets over quickly, good luck.

      Stevie x

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