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Your Child’s Separation Anxiety

As the school year approaches, your child may have a certain amount of anxiety about going to school, whether or not it is the first time. The prospect of new experiences away from their parents or other loved ones can be quite frightening for children. The complaint of an upset stomach, headache, or some other ailment the night before or the morning of the school day is probably the most classic sign of apprehension. These worries are a normal part of development for all children, and your child can be expected to exhibit similar symptoms to a certain degree.

Many times the anxiety will not be limited to an avoidance of attending school. It can occur whenever you anticipate some sort of separation from the parents or other loved ones - say, a sleepover at a friend's house, or a parent's business trip. Symptoms can range from mild uneasiness to full-blown panic attacks. Your child may express fears that something bad, such as an accident or kidnapping, will befall the parent or him or herself. In addition, clingy behavior, pleading, and tantrums are common just before the separation is about to occur. Other possible symptoms of separation anxiety are nightmares, the refusal to sleep alone, and the need for frequent reassurance that everything is OK.

Supportive, yet firm

The best way to deal with your child's fears is to be supportive, yet firm in enforcing the separation. One thing you could say is "I think you're feeling nervous, but you do have to go to school. Tell me what you're worried about." Of course, you may discover that the problems causing the anxiety are real, such as a dispute with a bully, a difficult teacher or an upcoming exam. These problems may range from relatively easy to very difficult to solve. You should address the problem as soon as you learn about it and work toward resolution.

Don't give in to arguments or tantrums; your child will soon see how that fear is easily exaggerated. Be sure to tell the teacher about your child's worries. Most teachers are experts at handling separation anxiety. Most important, reward your child with praise every time he makes it through the school day.

Most cases of school separation anxiety are resolved fairly quickly. Children who are more likely to be anxious may have other problems, both current and in later life. Sometimes separation anxiety is a reaction to a recent disruptive event such as the illness or death of a family member or friend, divorce or remarriage, or moving to a new city. Children whose families have histories of panic disorder, phobias, depression or alcoholism may also be more prone to separation anxiety. Parents should contact a pediatrician or child psychiatrist for further assistance if the behavior lasts more than a few days or if the symptoms seem excessive or severe.