Separation Anxiety, Part 3

Teachers–if you have a student who is suffering from Separation Anxiety Disorder, you may struggle with predicting and managing his or her anxiety attacks.  Below are some situations that may inspire fear or panic in students with Separation Anxiety Disorder, plus suggestions for helping students cope with each situation.

Substitute Teachers 
If your student relies on your presence to help manage her anxiety, a substitute teacher may trigger feelings of abandonment and vulnerability.  Whenever possible, warn students in advance about your upcoming absences.  Since most of your absences are likely to be unexpected, talk to students early in the year about procedure for substitute teachers.  Consider having another trusted teacher (or the school nurse, perhaps) check in on your anxious student during your absence.

Field Trips 
Most children find field trips exciting, but students with any type of anxiety disorder can have difficulty in new situations. Students with separation anxiety may worry that their parents won’t be able to find them during the trip or will take too long to arrive if there’s an emergency. Provide ample information about the field trip in advance, and casually but clearly explain that, if a student becomes ill or upset, you can easily contact his parents. Consider inviting parents on the field trip or allowing them to drive their own children.

Late Parents  
A student with separation anxiety is likely to panic when her parent is late for pick-up. She may worry that she has been abandoned, or she may suspect that her parent has been injured or killed. A panicking child may cry or hyperventilate, but she may also become very quiet, pace by herself, or begin speaking loudly. She may complain of stomach pain, nausea, or a headache. If you suspect that your student is panicking about her parent’s tardiness, offer gentle reassurance and distraction. Privately remind your student that her fear is a symptom, not a premonition, and that releasing her fear will not increase the likelihood of catastrophe.

When students have difficulty separating from their parent at morning drop-off, offer immersive distractions and persistent reassurance. Do NOT encourage parents to sneak away. Instead, suggest one brief but satisfying “goodbye” before enthusiastically calling the child’s attention to something else. If a student continues to cry or panic, offer nurturing reassurances that he is safe and that you will be looking out for him.

Absent Friend
Many anxious students use close friends as parent-substitutes. In Kindergarten, I made Sara D. come with me every time I went to the bathroom. Thanks, Sara! If you notice a student with separation anxiety becoming dependent on one friend, occasionally push her to bond with other students. When your anxious student’s best friend is absent, take extra care to help her integrate into other groups, and subtly check on her at lunch and recess.

Children typically dislike being perceived as different or weird, so be subtle when helping your anxious students. Also, please remember that these tips are meant to mitigate separation anxiety during minor crises and are not long-term solutions or treatment plans. Parents, if you suspect that your child has an anxiety disorder, please contact your pediatrician.

Fearless Learning offers information, advice, and support for students with anxiety. Contact me for more information.

Separation Anxiety, Part 1
Separation Anxiety, Part 2


Separation Anxiety, Part 2

My own experiences with childhood anxiety inspired me to become a teacher of anxious students.  The anxiety disorder I see most frequently in my work is Separation Anxiety Disorder.  Remember, separation anxiety is perfectly normal in toddlers, and many young children have some difficulty in new situations.  Separation Anxiety Disorder is characterized by extreme or inappropriate separation anxiety and must be diagnosed by a doctor or mental health professional.  Read part 1 of this separation anxiety series for my experience with the disorder.

If you suspect that your child has Separation Anxiety Disorder or any other anxiety disorder (people often have more than one), please contact your pediatrician.  Note that helping your child overcome separation anxiety will take patience and incremental change. (Fearless Learning offers customized online coaching and consultation for students with anxiety.  Contact me for more information.  And, if you live in New York City, check out my services for anxious students!)

If you have a student who may be suffering from an anxiety disorder, consult with his or her parents to create a plan to help your student cope with his or her anxiety, and read on for tips and information.

Separation Anxiety Disorder can impede academic success in two major ways:  First, students may resist attending school.  Between 2 and 5 percent of school-age children suffer from anxiety-related school refusal.  Second, students with Separation Anxiety Disorder who are able to attend school may spend the day distracted by their anxiety.  In order to help students with Separation Anxiety Disorder, it’s important to understand their fears.  Very young children may not have specific fears and may instead simply feel uncomfortable, anxious, or panicked when separated from loved ones.  Older children and gifted youngsters are likely to have more specific concerns.  Like many children with Separation Anxiety Disorder, I was terrified of losing my mother.  Other children worry about getting lost or being kidnapped.  Extreme and inappropriate anxiety is hereditary, so don’t assume that children’s fears are the result of past experiences.  Instead, think of each fear as an arbitrary symptom of a disease.   Ideally, your student will learn to think of his fears similarly.

When one of your students expresses anxiety about being separated from a loved one, listen to her fears and offer appropriate reassurance.  Calmly assure students that their parents are safe and have neither abandoned them nor become injured, and stress that fear is not a predictor of catastrophe.  It may be helpful to explicitly explain that fear about losing a parent is not an indication that the parent has been harmed, a fallacy that even gifted students with anxiety may consciously or subconsciously entertain.   Anxious students may also worry (subconsciously, perhaps) that failing to worry about loved ones will result in the loss of those loved ones.  This type of magical thinking is common in individuals with Obsessive-compulsive Disorder but may be present in children with other anxiety disorders.

As always, treat anxious students with respect, compassion, and patience.

Tomorrow: the final installment of my separation anxiety series, including problem-solving tools for separation situations.

Separation Anxiety, Part 1

There exists, somewhere in storage at my parents’ house, a heart-wrenching home movie wherein my father interviews six-year-old me about the upcoming school year. “Are you excited to meet your new teacher?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say, swinging my legs.
“Will you be on a soccer team again?”
I show a thumbs-up and then slowly turn it down, smirking. First grade humor.
“What do you think your biggest problem will be this year?” asks my dad, his voice cheerful from behind the camera.
My face instantly freezes in wide-eyed terror, and then, quietly, I say, “Can you turn off the camera for a second?” The camera cuts to me, a few minutes later, looking sick. “The bad feeing,” I say solemnly. I don’t remember what I said while the camera was off. Maybe I asked permission to tell my secret. Scared and sad, I clarify: “The bad feeling I get when I’m away from Mommy.”

According to my parents, I was born with separation anxiety. No amount of training or soothing could keep me from becoming hysterical the moment my mother left the room. No one, not my grandparents or aunts or even my own father, could comfort me. I knew, as soon as I could know, that my fear was unusual. I made up coping tools and learned to avoid anxiety triggers; in preschool, I noticed that “She’ll be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain” was intolerable since coming meant she wasn’t there yet. I felt the same about one of my mother’s favorite lullabies, which opened with “I still remember the nights/when mommy would turn out the lights.”

I had myriad anxieties as a child, but the fear of losing my mother was by far the worst. Every single second I was away from her, I worried that she’d died. It didn’t even feel like worry, it felt like I knew she was dead. If she was a minute late to pick me up from preschool, my fears felt confirmed and I panicked until she arrived. In kindergarten, I did my best to hide my anxiety, but it showed in the way I paced silently during pickup, the way I clung to my teacher during class, and the way I couldn’t be alone.

In the early nineties, most of these symptoms were seen as cute quirks I’d likely outgrow, but my parents saw the extent of my discomfort and rightly worried. They’d tried every bit of advice the pediatrician could offer, and when I still refused to spend a single night in my own bed halfway through first grade, they finally got a referral for a child psychologist. The psychologist dispensed an awkward mix of old-fashioned mother blame and contemporary cognitive-behavioral therapy. I started spending ten minutes at night in my own daybed, listening to The Baby-sitters Club books on tape. A week later, I followed that activity with ten minutes alone in the dark. Eventually I wasn’t allowed to get into bed with my mother unless it was after 11, then after one. So I sat in the dark and stared at the clock and cried quietly for ten minutes or four hours, it didn’t matter. Finally, after weeks of my daytime grogginess, my parents gave up.

I moved into my own bed volitionally in sixth grade.

Check back tomorrow for Part 2, advice for parents and teachers of children with Separation Anxiety Disorder.

Comfort Objects

In first grade, consensus was there was absolutely nothing worse than being called “babyish.” Kindergarteners were babyish.  Seesawing was babyish unless you bounced as hard as you could–otherwise a group of six-year-olds would surround you and chant, “bay-bee-ISH” over and over until you bounced so hard it hurt.  Crying was babyish unless you had a really good reason.  And carrying around a rag doll named Dolly or a pink babydoll who you insisted was a boy would have been babyish enough to get you shunned all year, I thought, so I had limited options when it came to selecting a safety object to get me through the long schoolday away from my mom.

Luckily (well, not luckily), I was the kind of kid who could get attached to anything.  (I had, for years, a beloved piece of string named Stringy who lived in an envelope and missed me when I was gone. Parents of similar children should note that I outgrew the quirk even before receiving treatment for my anxiety, and I would actually describe my current relationship with “stuff” as atypically healthy.)  I took advantage of my easy attachment by deliberately bonding to a tiny Pebbles figure that came in a bottle of Flintstones vitamins.  To keep it safe and out of site, I carried it in a florescent fanny pack; this was 1994, when such things were acceptable even without irony.  When I got anxious in class, I’d quietly unzip the pack and touch the figure.  Pretty clever, I thought, although even then I knew that a kid my age couldn’t be trusted to keep track of a tiny toy for very long.  I had the vigilance of OCD on my side, though, and, when I finally did lose Pebbles, I noticed almost immediately.  We’d just gotten back from recess.  When I slipped my fingers into my fanny pack and found only tissues and a tiny flashlight (would you believe I was actually popular throughout school?), I turned fear into bravery and managed to explain the situation to my teacher.  I thought she’d make me wait until lunch to go look, and she wanted to, but I guess she could see my panic, because she changed her mind.  The assistant teacher took me out to the playground, and I sifted sand around where I’d been playing and quickly found Pebbles, dusted her off, and put her back where she belonged.  Crisis averted.

Not all anxious kids have comfort objects, and certainly not all kids with comfort objects are unhealthily anxious.  “Security blankets” and similar belongings are typically considered healthy and perfectly normal tools for children who are beginning to separate from their parents.  However, when children retain safety objects into grade school, it may be a sign of excess anxiety.  Making a child give up her or his object “cold turkey” can lead to panic, mistrust, and trauma, so never try to help reduce your student’s dependence by confiscating his comfort object.  (If a student is using her comfort object to be disruptive, insist that she pack it away or put it down, and discipline her appropriately for continued disruptions.)  If a child misplaces his comfort object, I personally suggest letting him go look for it as soon as he notices it’s gone, assuming this doesn’t become a recurrent situation.  Some psychologists warn that the continued use of safety objects and similar rituals can reinforce anxiety.  Ideally, a student will practice delaying her use of her confort object until her anxiety begins to wane naturally or through relaxation practices.  Talk to parents to create a healthy plan that encourages your anxious student to address his anxiety directly while incrementally decreasing his dependance on his comfort object.  Remain supportive, respectful, and positive, and you’ll likely become a significant contributor to your student’s recovery.