Separation anxiety can affect children of all ages. About four per cent of primary school age children experience excessive separation anxiety when separated from their parent or primary care giver . Typically, these children persistently worry about being forgotten, or fear their parent/carer being harmed or not returning. Separation anxiety and associated fears can also be experienced in adolescence and can interfere with school attendance, learning and wellbeing .
A healthy level of separation anxiety is part of normal childhood development and indicates the development of a close bond and attachment to the primary caregiver. It usually begins around six months of age and ends by the time children begin kindergarten, preschool or primary school.
For most children separation anxiety decreases and ceases as they gain confidence and adjust to attending school. Others will fail to adapt, leading to ongoing problems separating, possible bouts of school refusal  and other mental health issues.
Who is more ‘at risk’?
Excessive separation anxiety is more common in children with a parent/carer who:
- is over-protective
- misses opportunities to build the child’s confidence
- focuses on negatives
- reassures excessively and gives in to the child’s demands
- has unresolved trauma or grief that still impacts on their life
- has persisting concerns about the child and their learning.
Some children have a biological predisposition to ‘fearful shyness’, a tendency to shy away from novel situations. Inhibited children are at a greater risk of separation anxiety.
Where separation anxiety arises from a parent’s own anxiety, both the parent and the child can fuel each other’s anxiety leading to a cycle of uneasiness and escalating anxiety.
School and home strategies for the primary and junior secondary child
The Psych4Schools Working with children who experience separation anxiety (revised) ebooklet provides a description of separation anxiety and a range of strategies teachers and other school professionals can use to assist the child to gain confidence and adjust to attending school. It also suggests strategies that parents can implement. As separation anxiety and associated worries and fears can be experienced in adolescence and can interfere with school attendance, learning and wellbeing, strategies to prevent and reduce escalating separation anxiety are also described. Many strategies can be easily adapted to include in student’s Individual Learning Plans and psychologist reports.
The ebooklet is written in sections to help you to:
Support the child with separation anxiety
- Develop a morning ritual/routine
- Implement classroom strategies
- Create a chart of activities for the child to build independence from parents
- Suggest how parents can further support their child
- Advise ways that parents can further build independence and confidence.
Talk with the child and parent/carers about school camps
Prevent and reduce escalating separation anxiety
- Build trust, belonging, calmness and fun
- Reduce hesitance, avoidance, perfectionism and withdrawn behaviour
- Build abilities to think, feel and act appropriately.
When to seek further assistance
Whether separation anxiety develops or emerges in primary school or in adolescence if it is excessive, interferes with the child’s daily functioning, and lasts for more than four weeks, it is essential the child be referred, via the parents to an appropriate professional. If left untreated, separation anxiety can intensify and result in difficulty making friends, concentrating and completing schoolwork; it may also escalate and result in school refusal, drug and alcohol use  and other anxiety disorders in adolescence and adulthood.
Separation anxiety can co-exist with generalised anxiety disorders and social phobia. Refer the child, via the parents, to a psychologist or the family doctor. Encourage the parents to follow the recommendations made by the clinician and to share appropriate recommendations with the school.
Want to know more about how to help prevent and reduce anxiety, or help with school refusal? Or help children who worry excessively, are shy, perfectionistic, lack confidence speaking publicly or have difficulty making friends? These and many more topics are addressed in ebooklets and tip sheets for members on the Psych4Schools website.
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If you wish to contact me please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Murray Evely, Psych4Schools Psychologist/ Guidance Officer