“My stomach hurts.” “I can’t sleep;” “Can you close my closet?” “Can I just sleep with you?” Sound familiar? You are not alone – and neither is your child. Obviously, all children have times of anxiety when leaving their parents, or meeting new people, or going to a sleepover for the first time. Most will even go through a period of wanting to sleep in your room. But most toddlers or young kids grow out of that. What they don’t generally do is stay awake all night long, miss school, throw random tantrums about leaving you; or turn down sleepovers with their close friends. What they don’t generally do is bring that anxiety into the school years. Continue reading below to learn how recognizing separation anxiety disorder can better help you understand your child and their needs; and find out how to best help your child through this.
This article is written by Dana Baker
For more on this topic, check out the full Mental Health collection
What Separation Anxiety Disorder Looks Like
Approximately 12% of children suffer from separation anxiety disorder before they reach 18. While that’s not a huge amount, it’s enough that it should be talked about and highlighted. There should be information out there for parents to know what’s typical and what isn’t. You know what to look for in the flu, but what about identifying mental health disorders in children? Where’s the document about anxiety – and Anxiety; and the differences between them. I wish I had clued into any of the telltale signs before I did. But honestly, I didn’t know what those signs were. All my friends had kids who had had some trouble sleeping. And when you are living through it, it feels singular; like you alone are battling these ever elusive sleep demons.
For a while I traveled a couple of days a week for work, and my leaving was excruciating. It was also excruciating when I called home and could barely understand anything being said through enormous fits of tears and “Come home, Mommy; please come home.” It broke my heart. My husband was hassled, frustrated and downright cranky. Trying to get our daughter to school was anything but pretty in the mornings I was away. I felt enormous guilt and was torn between trying to calm and comfort Carrie, or telling her to just suck it up and go to school. I often hung up in tears myself. But I comforted myself. I just thought, “ this too shall pass”.
Recognizing Separation Anxiety Disorder
That all changed one day when my daughter’s kindergarten teacher saw me dropping her off and said, “Oh it’s so great having you home! No more tummy aches.” EXCUSE ME?? That was the first I had heard of those apparently daily events. The fact that they disappeared when I was home was clearly a sign that she was distressed. Carrie had worried I would get hurt or die in an airplane, or not come home, or any number of things all the time. But we didn’t know that because she didn’t have the words to tell me. Or she was too scared to say it. Looking back, Dave and I didn’t stop to ask the right questions.
Things improved when I was home more often. There was continuity, I was clued into her sensitivity and she felt safe. So again, I wasn’t too concerned. She went to school just fine, she liked her teachers, had friends, and had fun. She was actually back to being a bundle of joy, laughter, and creativity. Until she wasn’t.
Understanding the Fluctuation with Anxiety
You know that story of when he was good he was very, very good; but when he was bad, he was terrible? Well, let’s just say I do too. Carrie started to turn down play dates, or would only have them at our house. She began only wanting to play one on one. She began saying that she felt like a prisoner at school, and she was always worried. And now she needed to know what the plan was, and as soon as it changed.
Then watch out, tantrums like crazy came on. Inconsolable tears; fits where she would straighten her back and not get into the car to save her life. She stopped going to sleepovers, or would go but have to be picked up in the night – and believe me, that was not good for anyone.
And then, after years of sleeping just fine in her own room, she stopped. Just stopped. At first, we thought she must have had a bad dream the night before. But it kept going. Night after night, we would check her room and closet for bad guys and people that might want to hurt Mom. She couldn’t sleep because what if there was a fire? What if someone broke into the house? What if she was kidnapped? Or worse, what if her brother was?
Clearly, something was off. There was no talking logic to her, and there was no sleep for any of us. So when we were beyond ourselves with exhaustion and frustration, we found a counselor and had her start seeing someone to talk to and work through the fears. But now on top of the no sleep, the stomachaches were back; and panic or anxiety attacks going to school were starting. Carrie was seriously struggling. Unfortunately, by then we were all struggling. Dave couldn’t understand that for Carrie these issues were completely real. Their conflict, the stress and walking on eggshells to keep the peace was taking a toll.
How to Help a Child With Separation Anxiety
Our efforts to calm her or use reasoning were completely ineffective. Sick of the arguing and tears, we tried letting her sleep with us for a little while. Wrong choice! So wrong. Then no one slept because the bed was too small and she thrashed around all night. Finally, counselor number two suggested we try something different: put an extra bed in her room and one of us sleep there. That was step one – get her to sleep in her own room again. Eventually, it worked; she got some sleep. Me? Not so much.
Step two was that once she fell asleep, we then returned to our bed. That worked… until she woke up, saw we weren’t there anymore and started screaming. Or woke up from a nightmare. Back one of us went. By then we were so tired ourselves that we might fall asleep in her room before she did. And thereby not affecting any change in the right direction.
A tired mom is a short-tempered mom. A tired dad might be even worse. The house that was once so joyful and peaceful was now filled with angst, anger and just plain exhaustion. I wasn’t sleeping; my husband fell asleep in her room confounding the issue. So then we were tired and at odds. Add to that an older brother who was tired of all the fights and of his sister being such a nightmare. Everyone’s patience had dissolved long ago and family dynamics hit a new low. Clearly we needed more help, and so did she.
Finding the Right Help and Solutions
By now we had tried all of the tricks to solving this issue. Gentle bedtime routine? Check. Regular bedtime? Check. Promoting healthy sleep? Check. Warm bath; stories; snuggles? Check, check and check. We encouraged rituals that soothed her. We gave her her blanket and favorite stuffy. And we tried meditation, soft music and then white noise when that didn’t work. She read. We read to her. You name it, we tried it. At this point we realized she had some serious Anxiety and we were well beyond our abilities to solve the issue. So we found a new therapist to help us face this sleep demon.
Our new therapist was great! Carrie really took to her and looked forward to seeing her, and to having someone of her own to talk to. One of us was still staying in her room at this point. We again tried leaving after she fell asleep. More tears. Then the doctor suggested a more gradual approach. After getting her to bed and completing our nightly, calming rituals, we (one of us) sat in her room. Not on a bed, not lying down. Sat in a chair so we would not fall asleep. Which, if I’m honest, had it’s own issues, but still.
When she fell asleep, we were supposed to move to the hallway and sit there. Slowly, ever so slowly over many nights. We moved a little farther away within the room. Then into the hallway. Then further down the hallway. Until finally, we made it to our own bedroom.
Helping Your Child Through Separation Anxiety
So how did our new therapist help? A few ways. She had Carrie talk about her fears and give voice to them. Apparently, that sounds way easier than it is. The Anxiety that Carrie felt also meant she had had a hard time voicing or admitting to the scary thoughts. So her therapist had her look at What Ifs. She talked about those What If’s. Then Carrie would tell me about them so I could help her at home.
For instance, if she brought up a fire, we could lead her through that. “Have you ever had a fire or known anyone who did? If not, was there a reason her house might get one? Did anyone smoke or leave on the gas? No, well then was it possible no fire would happen?” Same with a burglar or an airplane trip – or whatever the scenario was that was bothering her. We learned to walk and talk her through her fears. Which sounds good and is a great starting point. But of course, that alone didn’t do it, as this Anxiety is not rational.
Another helpful tip was having her picture her fear and describe it. Then draw it and name it. That helped put some distance between the fear and her. Plus we could use humor and come up with ways for her to yell at it or tell it to go away. We were able to make it a little, tiny bit fun and less scary. Sometimes I had her draw her feelings and we’d throw the drawing away, or burn it so it couldn’t come back. We found new ways to face her fears, and discovered a new balance for our family.
Helpful Tips for Separation Anxiety
Another winner? While we had tried relaxation and meditation apps (these didn’t work for her), her therapist taped her own soothing voice in a little meditation for Carrie. Reminded her what to do, how to relax, how to help herself. We had her play that in her bed when she was experiencing a tough night. And as we got one night of sleep, it went to two, then maybe back a step. But eventually we were able to have enough success that she set up her own goal and reward system.
She would choose how many nights she would stay alone, and if she was successful, what fun thing we would do. It became hers; she controlled it. She was sad, mad and therefore determined to banish it. Thank God for her stubborn streak at those moments.
Lo and behold, it took. She realized she could make the sleep demon disappear all on her own. She owned it and she conquered it. And eventually, she even went on a successful sleepover again.
For more on this topic, check out the full Mental Health collection
Featured Contributor: Dana Baker
Dana Baker is a writer, editor, not-so-perfect mom of two, and a Parent and Teen Coach. She help families reconnect and find a way around the walls that cause such isolation and dysfunction in these years. Dana offers advice from the trenches, a non-judgmental ear and tips/feedback based on the science of psychology and the reality of parenting. Read her blog and follow her on social media.