By Brandy Browne
As we approach the school building, my daughter suddenly clings to my hand, and I see tears begin to well up in her eyes. I brace myself for the inevitable meltdown to come when it is time for me to send her on to class. I used to think that she would outgrow this particular behavior, but, at ten years old and with a recent diagnosis of generalized anxiety and panic attacks, I have come to accept that it is not going anywhere, and my job is simply to help her learn to cope with the storm inside her body.
Even as a toddler, my daughter would cry when I dropped her off with her grandmother so that I could work. She would cling to my leg, and my mom would peel her off. I always felt terrible as I drove away, but convinced myself it was just her age, and it would not always be like that. Her first year of school, she cried nearly every day for months. This time, I convinced myself it was because we had a new baby at home. However, this process has repeated itself for years. She usually has at least mild symptoms (eyes filling up with tears, repetitive questioning “When will you be back, Mom?”, little rituals such as a certain number of hugs, etc.) before every transition, even something as simple as me running to the store or dropping her off at an activity.
This is not a child who is starved for attention, as we spend most of our days together. Stanford Children’s Health (2020) describes this phenomenon as “separation anxiety disorder.” When a child displays signs of separation anxiety that are not age appropriate (such as my daughter still clinging to my hand and occasionally crying when it is time to go to school at ten years old) for longer than four weeks, separation anxiety disorder may be to blame.
What causes SAD?
Well, it can be genetic. If a child has anxious parents (ding ding ding, that’s me), he or she may be more likely to develop SAD. According to Stanford Children’s Health, “An imbalance of 2 chemicals in the brain (norepinephrine and serotonin) most likely plays a part” as well (retrieved from https://www.stanfordchildrens.org/en/topic/default?id=separation-anxiety-disorder-90-P02582). Additionally, environmental factors, such as learned responses that are reinforced by parents and caregivers can be to blame.
How might one treat SAD?
SAD is often treated with the same strategies one might employ in treating any anxiety disorder. Behavioral therapies, anti anxiety medications, family therapy, and school based therapies are all options. It is critical to ensure that all parties (medical team, school, family) are on the same page to ensure that the child experiencing SAD has optimum chances for improving symptoms.
Children’s Resources for SAD
- The Invisible String by Patrice Karst
- The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn
- Llama llama Misses Mama by Anna Dewdney
- Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes
- The Worry Box by Suzanne Chiew
Parent’s Resources for SAD
- Helping Your Child Overcome Separation Anxiety or School Refusal: A Step by Step Guide for Parents by Andew Eisen
- Growing Up Brave: Expert Strategies for Helping Your Child Overcome Fear, Stress, and Anxiety by Donna Pincus
- The No Cry Separation Anxiety Solution: Gentle Ways to Make Goodbye Easy from 6 Months to 6 Years by Elizabeth Pantley
- How Parents Can Raise Resilient Children: Preparing Your Child for the Real Tough World of Adulthood by Instilling Them with Principles of Love, Self-Discipline, and Independent Thinking by Frank Dixon
- Beyond Behaviors: Using Brain Science and Compassion to Understand and Solve Children’s Behavioral Challenges by Mona Delahooke
As a mother who has experienced this with her child, I have spent years wishing things were different or looking for a quick fix. What I have come to realize is that there really is not one. As with any mental health disorder, it takes continuous monitoring and being willing to experiment to see what will work well for your child at that particular point in his or her life. Seek out other parents who are on your journey for emotional support…my own facebook group often posts such resources that center around children’s mental health issues. To join, visit https://www.facebook.com/UnStuck-108043424440195
Additionally, I moderate a group called Kid’s Mental Health Lockdown Resources for The Lily Jo Project, a wonderful nonprofit based out of the UK that focuses on empowering children, teens, and adults to take charge of their mental health. That community would also be glad to have you…to join, visit this link https://www.facebook.com/groups/kidsmentalhealthlockdownresources
Stanford Children’s Health. (2020). Separation Anxiety Disorder in Children. Retrieved from https://www.stanfordchildrens.org/en/topic/default?id=separation-anxiety-disorder-90-P02582