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.
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!