Helping parents understand a child's separation anxiety
West Yavapai Guidance Clinic Counselor's Column
With back-to-school time just around the corner, it's a good time to revisit the child behavioral health topic of "Separation Anxiety."
Going to school is usually an exciting and enjoyable event for young children. However, for some it can cause intense fear or panic. Parents should be concerned if their child regularly complains about feeling sick or often asks to stay home from school with minor physical complaints.
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (www.aacap.org), not wanting to go to school may occur at anytime, but is most common in children 5-7 and 11-14, times when children are dealing with the new challenges of elementary and middle school. These children may suffer from a paralyzing fear of leaving the safety of their parents and home. The child's panic and refusal to go to school is very difficult for parents to cope with, but these fears and behavior can be treated successfully, with professional help.
Refusal to go to school often begins following a period at home in which the child has become closer to the parent, such as a summer vacation, a holiday break or a brief illness.
It also may follow a stressful occurrence, such as the death of a pet or relative, a change in schools, or a move to a new neighborhood.
The child may complain of a headache, sore throat or stomachache shortly before it is time to leave for school. Since the panic comes from leaving home rather than being in school, frequently the child is calm once in school.
Children with an unreasonable fear of school may:
feel unsafe staying in a room by themselves
display clinging behavior
display excessive worry and fear about parents or about harm to themselves
shadow the mother or father around the house
have difficulty going to sleep
have exaggerated, unrealistic fears of animals, monster, burglars
fear being alone in the dark, or
have severe tantrums when forced to go to school
Such symptoms and behaviors are common among children with separation anxiety disorder.
The potential long-term effects (anxiety and panic disorder as an adult) are serious for a child who has persistent separation anxiety and does not receive professional assistance.
When fears persist the parents and child should consult with a qualified mental health professional, who will work with them to develop a plan to immediately return the child to school and other activities.