Terry is a 12 year old making the transition to middle school whose worry about going into 7th grade developed into a fear of crying in public and panic attacks, which led to separation anxiety. His parents are worried sick because Terry is having a hard time now even going out to play with friends. His older brother thinks Terry is weird.
Jennifer, an 8 year old, developed separation anxiety in 3rd grade, making school mornings a nightmare for the whole family. Jennifer’s parents face screaming, crying, begging and outright, “I won’t go!” whenever they try to get her out the door to catch the school bus. Jennifer’s anxiety has generalized to play dates and parties, she’s even run out of the classroom. Her sister, in the same school is embarrassed by Jen’s public behavior.
What is Separation Anxiety and Why is My Tween So Afraid?
Parents whose tween develops separation anxiety, an emotional condition where a child experiences distress and anxiety when separated from the primary caregiver, often become worried, frustrated, and even angry in trying to deal with their anxious child’s behavior. It’s hard for a parent to understand and deal with their child who freaks out over going to play at a friend’s house. A normal occurrence during childhood development, separation anxiety generally occurs between the ages of eight months and two years old, though separation fears also develop during other life transitions such as, beginning kindergarten and entering into pre-adolescence.
Parents with anxious tweens ask, “What in the world is happening to my once happy child?” “Why can’t he go to birthday parties anymore?” “Why can’t she let go?” This is a time of explosive growth and change from childhood into pre-teen. Many children have a hard time stepping out into the world and try to cling to the safety of home. Following are some of the reasons:
- Tween bodies are developing and awareness of body image becomes an issue; the flood of sex hormones affects emotional centers of the brain making it tough for tweens to control feelings and behaviors; areas of the brain that house impulse control and rational thought are still developing.
- School work becomes harder, homework and testing increases; “fitting in” is suddenly very important; more individual responsibility is expected from parents and school.
- If anxiety develops it packs a wallop with symptoms that include: racing heart, hot flush and sweating, stomachaches, vomiting and diarrhea, headaches, feelings of dread and of being trapped, the inability to concentrate, think or reason, and panic attacks.
A child with separation anxiety is a child who feels distressed, frightened and out of control. Anxiety is a complex condition, and there are many aspects to helping your child. How you communicate your concerns, respond to your child’s behaviors, and talk about what’s happening will play a large part in helping your child.
Can We Talk?
Communicating effectively can be tricky, especially when you’re trying to talk to your anxious pre-teen who says, “I don’t want to talk about it.” And who can blame your child who wants the disturbing feelings to just go away? It’s not just the words you use, but the volume and tone of your voice matters too. And your body language speaks volumes: Are your head neck and shoulders tight? Is your facial expression one of frustration, worry or anger? Is your posture sagging with fatigue about the situation or rigid with tension? Do you wring your hands without realizing it? Having trouble making eye contact because you feel like crying?
It’s hard to communicate to your anxious tween that you are in control of the situation though he feels out of control much of the time, and when you feel anxious about his separation fears yourself. But that’s what you want to do, and here are tips to help you communicate effectively:
- Stay Calm-no matter what your child says, no matter how he is behaving you must remain calm, regardless of how you feel. Your composure communicates to your child that you are his “rock” and in control. Learning easy belly breathing will help you to do this.
- Check Your Body Language-keep shoulders back but relaxed, relax facial muscles and hands, make and maintain eye contact to show you’re engaged and interested.
- Ask Open-Ended Questions-you want to connect with your child and find out how she feels. To keep the conversation going, keep away from closed questions that only require a yes, no, or a head nod. Say things like: “How does it make you feel?” “Tell me more about that.” “What do you think will happen?”
- Tone of Voice Matters– speak softly and kindly to show your child how much you care. This will ease any guilt (a common occurrence) your tween may have about his anxiety disrupting the whole family, and will help your child open up to you.
- Listen-show your child you are interested in his feelings, his problems by: making eye contact, give your child your undivided attention, don’t’ interrupt–wait your turn to speak, nod when appropriate, lean forward slightly and keep hands still, paraphrase what he’s said to make sure you’ve heard correctly and to show that you’ve been listening.
- Honor Your Child’s Feelings-don’t downplay your child’s fears. For example, never say things like, “It’s silly to be afraid of going to your friend’s house.” Though irrational, your child’s fears are real to him. Anxiety makes kids feel different, isolated from others-judging his feelings adds to that. Telling him it’s okay to feel afraid supports him. Say, “I’m here for you and you’re not alone in this.”
- Make it Brief-anxiety is hard to talk about, so limit the conversation. Watch your child’s reaction, if he gets upset, end it, comfort him, and say, “Honey, it’s okay, we can talk about this later.”
- Believe-tell your child you believe in his ability to overcome anxiety and that together you’re going to make things better for him. Your belief that he can succeed is projected onto your child (in the same way your worry is) and will empower him.