My first tip for dealing with separation anxiety is to change up the morning routine. When does your child's anxiety start? Once you figure that out, you can start re-working the morning so you spend it on the CALM channel instead of on the ANXIOUS channel (We regularly talk about "changing the channel in the brain"!).
-For many kids, anxiety begins when they wake up. They lay in bed and start worrying before their feet even hit the floor. If this is the case, here's the plan -- Get up the minute you open your eyes! Turn on some cheerful, upbeat music. Get dressed, brush teeth, and get going with the day before anxiety takes hold.
-For a lot of kids, anxiety begins when they first see mom or dad. They wander into their parents' room and start talking -- "Where will you be today?" "Will I be okay at school today?" "Do I have to go to school?" Some parents respond by reassuring repeatedly (which feeds anxiety); others get frustrated which in turns increases the child's anxiety. If this is the case, I often ban that morning conversation. I make it a rule that parents and kids can't talk until they are in the kitchen, having breakfast....at which point, the conversation cannot be about separation, anxiety, or school worries. I encourage parents to say, "I don't want to talk to anxiety this morning. What else can we talk about?"
-If kids are having a really hard time changing the channel, have them write down their worries about the day (parents can help younger kids do this -- but should not begin reassuring their kids about these worries because that feeds anxiety). Explain that we won't be talking about them in the morning because "we won't know till we go". At the end of the day, sit with your child and evaluate whether their worries came true or did not come true. And, if a worry did come true, discuss with your child whether he/she was able to cope with that challenge.
-Breakfast is a difficult time. Many anxious kids don't want to eat in the mornings. Although I am a huge proponent of breakfast, here is what I recommend -- lay breakfast out each morning, but also lay out some other items at the table to get your child's brain busy with something else besides worrying! Put out a sketch pad and some markers, a cool book (kids love those "weird but true" books, for example), the sports page of the paper, or some little things to play with. Encourage kids to attend to these things rather than anxiety.
-Be mindful of time. Rushing increases anxiety. Make sure to calm the pace for the whole family in the morning, even if it means waking up a bit earlier.
-Our next set of tips will involve getting kids to school!
There is nothing more wrenching than watching a terrible separation between a parent and a child in the morning. Whether it's a mom putting a hysterical child on the school bus or having to seek the assistance of a guidance counselor to pry their child out of the car, separation anxiety is no way to start the day for anyone.
Why do children experience separation anxiety?
-Some children worry that something will happen to their parents when they are apart such as a car crash or a serious illness.
-Some children worry that something will happen to them when they are apart from their parents, like a kidnapping.
-In clinical practice, I find that the most common worry is that children fear that they will experience anxiety or possible illness (most typically tummy aches/vomiting) when apart from their parents and that they won't be able to cope. They doubt that other adults will assist them or "get" them as well as their parents do. More importantly, they doubt their own coping resources to help themselves if they feel worried or ill.
This week, I will post a tip each day to help re-build your mornings and make these daily separations easier. Stay tuned!
This month's Oprah Magazine had a great chart comparing the number of hours of sleep kids need with the number of hours they actually get. How do your kids stack up?
This September, I am struck at the frequency with which I am hearing about college anxiety. Yes, I am hearing it from high school seniors, but also from juniors, and sophomores, and even freshman. It seems that these days, it is never too early to start worrying about college.
At least this is the message that kids are getting from their schools, athletic coaches, peers, and to a lesser extent, parents. As a psychologist, I think it is nuts (and no, that is not a clinical term).
Here are my "words of wisdom" as the college application season approaches:
-When we spend years thinking/worrying about the "next" step in our lives, we miss out on the present moment. Yes, there are things we must do to prepare for college admission, but not at the expense of enjoying being a teenager and having a life during high school.
-Despite the seemingly popular belief that there are only 8 colleges in the US (not naming any names here), there are in fact almost 3000 4-year colleges in this country. There is a place out there for everyone. The kids who worry about college the most tend to be the ones who have the least to worry about -- they are the kids who will get into perfectly great schools. Our jobs as the adults in their lives is to help them discover what is important to them, and find schools that fit those criteria -- even if those schools are not the most elite and well-known.
-Kids spend a lot of time considering their final list of schools to which they are going to apply. I am convinced that once they develop this list, they could pick any school out of a hat and be happy there. Placing all our hopes on one school is misguided. There is no way to know if that ONE school will make a child happier or more successful than any other school on their list. Once the applications are in, what is often needed is an attitude adjustment -- these are all great choices for me and what really matters is the attitude I have about my college experience once I get there.
-My final tips for kids and parents during this potential stressful time -- PUT YOUR BLINDERS ON. Ignore all the advice and pressure from friends, other families, school and coaches. Focus on what is right for your child and your family. This might actually mean skipping some college fairs or non-mandatory programs at school that stir up the anxiety. Find out what you need to do, do it, and filter out the rest.
I am a licensed psychologist working with kids, teens, and adults with anxiety disorders.