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!
I am a licensed psychologist working with kids, teens, and adults with anxiety disorders.