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Typically, we think of babies and toddlers as being ripe for separation anxiety — the classic crying, weariness around strangers, and clinging behaviors tend to peak between six and 18 months in this age group, as little ones negotiate their attachment to parents with their newfound abilities and independence.
But separation anxiety can pop up at any time throughout childhood (and, lets face it, in adulthood too) — it may be a lifelong trait that your child struggles with, or a phase that coincides with a life transition like starting school or moving.
If your school-age child has a hard time separating, consider these ideas to help him work it through and build the skills he needs to ease his troubles:
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1: Try to pinpoint your childs triggers
Angst around leaving mom or dad tends to come with change and transition, for example, after a nice long period of being home on vacation or even after being sick. But it can also look worse when there are shifts going on at home, like one parent working longer hours, a new baby on the way, travel, moving, and
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2: Don't assume that tummy-ache
Separation anxiety is a real, physiological response that triggers the nervous systems fight-or-flight system. Your kid might complain of a stomachache or shakiness, for example. Of course, he could be putting on a show, but its also very likely that these are real symptoms (even if they stem from a psychological place). If they subside when he stays home or go away once school starts, they probably had a mental root. But you cant dismiss them — big feelings trip off genuine bodily sensations.
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3: Be sensitive to your kid's wiring
Our little ones all come into the world with unique temperaments. For the most part, kids who are weary of new settings or strangers dont have a problem — they have nervous systems that are more sensitive to novelty. You dont have to fix this, you just want to support and challenge your child enough to help him grow and learn new skills (see below) so he has the confidence to play, explore, and pursue his interests.
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4: Remember the feeling? Put it
Anxiety and many other aspects of our personality are in part coded in our genes. That means that anxious kids tend to have at least one parent who has experience with the same feelings. If thats you, use this to your advantage. You remember what it felt like to be shy or nervous going into a group or saying goodbye to parents, right? Talk about this openly with your child. Freestyle something at dinner or in the car, like, I remember when I was a kid, I had really shy feelings. Tell a story about yourself and what it was like. Talk about what helped you. Your child might stare at you blankly or appear like hes not paying attention, but most likely its being filed away somewhere in his mind.
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5: Role play
Part of the anxiety about separating comes from the fact that being out in the world brings on a whole host of new people and experiences to deal with. One way to help is to practice social skills with your kid at home. For example, set up scenarios in the house that would come up in the real world (like asking a new friend to play, asking a teacher for help, or saying you dont like something) and then act it out with your child or use dolls to carry on the conversation.
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6: Teach tools to lower anxiety
Practice belly breathing: ask your child to breathe in, all the way down to his belly for three counts, and then let it out for three counts, focusing his thoughts on the air coming in and going back out again. Exercises like these work because they have a calming effect on the nervous system.
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7: Give words to the feelings
One of the most important parts of helping kids work through separation anxiety (or any other difficult experience, for that matter), is identifying emotions. Observe what you see without judging or trying to make it better (just yet). For example, Wow, I can see you really dont want to go. I understand. Its hard to leave sometimes. Is it making you nervous? Depending on your childs age and personality, he may be able to tell you how hes feeling, or you can offer more suggestions.
Do this step without offering a solution or being a cheerleader — in other words, try to hold back from saying Its okay, whats the big deal? Youll be fine. Just describe what your kid is going through, then state the reality: Wow, I can see you really dont want to go. So youre feeling nervous in your body? Im going to be at work, and then Im picking you up at three oclock. Remember some of our tricks for when we have butterflies in our stomachs?
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8: Remember: Avoidance won't help in the long run
Its tempting to spare your child the discomfort of separating, but cancelling a night out or skipping a school trip is likely to spread the anxiety and send the message that there truly is something for your child to worry about. After youve empathized, helped your child by recognizing the feelings, and given him some coping skills, its time to hold the line (in a loving way) and send a confident message that all will be okay, and that youll be there waiting for him when its over.
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