Spotting Separation Anxiety

We’re going to look at where separation anxiety usually begins and how to manage it. 


For those of you who are members of the parents and professionals’ membership, you may have already seen the video of Priya Amlani and me talking about school refusal. This is a hot topic now and separation anxiety can certainly form part of it. But they are quite different issues. If you know a child or young person who is experiencing school refusal, then make sure you check out the conversation between me and Priya Amlani, in the “talking about” section of the parents and professionals’ membership area, because there we go into the subject matter deeply. 


We have an extensive conversation about what school refusal looks like, and crucially, what you can do about it. I know that that’s a subject area that is relevant now post COVID. There’s always another school holiday not too far away and these future scenarios of school refusal are, therefore, on the agenda as well. Separation anxiety, as I said, is sometimes tied in with that. 

 Sometimes, we may see school refusal happening because of separation anxiety. Natural separation anxiety happens in a child’s first couple of years in their life. Normally, when they are babies, you will see that a child favours one parent over the other, or that grandparents who they already know, love and get on well with, attempt to pick the child up, and they burst into tears.


That’s a natural stage of anxiety about being separated from their main carer that usually naturally resolves itself. However, some parents will almost overcompensate during that stage. So that bond between them becomes even stronger and makes it harder for the child to be accepting of other people that they should also be bonding with. Some children don’t come out of that separation anxiety stage because they have a parent who unwittingly ends up perpetuating the issue. Sometimes separation anxiety happens later because there’s been a trauma, anxiety, or a worry that a child has got in their head.  


Often, when I’ve worked with children who have separation anxiety (and even older teenagers) I’ve discovered that they have an idea in their head that something bad is going to happen to the person that they’re anxious about being separated from. They might even see pictures in their mind of that bad thing happening as they imagine worst-case scenarios.


For those of you who are NLP practitioners, we can resolve this very simply with a submodalities intervention. For those of you who are not NLP practitioners, who are scratching your heads wondering what was that ‘sub’ word mentioned above, submodalities are the coding that we give to our experiences, our memories, and even the stuff that is just pure fantasy. 


It’s the detail in which we see, hear, and feel the experiences that we are having. By tweaking and changing those details, we can begin to adjust the power or meaning that an experience has for us. So even though we can’t erase a bad thought from somebody’s head, we can play with it enough so that it doesn’t seem significant to them anymore. 


When we are dealing with something that looks like separation anxiety, we first want to make sure that it is separation anxiety. 


You’ll see my talk with Priya that she highlights what looks like school refusal, isn’t school refusal. It might be separation anxiety. We’re going to figure that out by having a conversation and getting to the bottom of it.


Some of what it is that’s going on in that young person’s head, may be that they’re not worried about leaving you and going back to school. Maybe they’re anxious about being in large groups again, in which case, it’s more like social anxiety. Maybe they’re not anxious about leaving you, maybe they are anxious about leaving the house in which case it’s agoraphobia. Maybe they’re not anxious about leaving you, maybe they just hate school – perhaps they’re worried about bullies. All these things present as separation anxiety, in fact, at times, so can a temper tantrum. 


We need to make sure that we know exactly what the issue is before we start treating it as separation anxiety. One of the key things that you can do is commit to persevering through the problem. One thing is for sure if you relent and allow them to stay with you (or if this is a child in your class, send them home to the parent) then it’s going to be even more difficult for them to commit to coming back the next day. We need to be able to push through and bite the bullet, suck up the pain and go through that period of discomfort so that we teach skills to become resilient and able to cope with separating from that parent or carer in the future. What we don’t want to do is to give up at the first sign of trouble, because that sets precedence.


In the beginning, we may need to start with a more manageable structure of time that this young person is away from their carer for. Begin extending that over the following days, weeks, and months. Keep pushing in the right direction, and not giving up just because things are looking uncomfortable. I’m not saying avoid homeschooling. Clearly, that is the best/right option or needed for some. But don’t assume that’s what’s needed without attempting some of these strategies first. 


On that note, the sense of guilt, pain, and discomfort that this puts parents through can be quite tremendous. We need to make sure that those people know they need to do their absolute best to react as normally as possible. Don’t get angry, don’t get anxious, don’t anticipate the worry, or the stress that’s going to come. 


Instead, just act normal – be as emotionless as possible. When this young person is presenting symptoms of high anxiety and high emotion. You don’t need to be super enthusiastic. You don’t need to be super-cross about what’s happening either and we certainly don’t want you getting upset about it. 


Will it be distressing? Chances are it probably will be. But the more that you can be quite business-like about it and keep your own emotions in check, then the less chance there is of us fanning the flames and making the emotions they’re already experiencing elevate. 


As I mentioned in our parents and professionals’ area, there is even more detail specifically about school refusal that you can find in the ‘talking about’ section. 


By Gemma Bailey

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