separation anxiety
by zaakirah mohamed

“I don’t want mummy to leave me at school; I am afraid she won’t come back.”

“Stephen is my tail; he cries when I go to the bathroom” (A mother’s account)

“Sipho complains of stomach pain most days when he has to go to school. The Dr says there is nothing medically wrong”

These may be some of the experiences from children who are suffering from anxiety. It is a normal developmental phase whereby children go through distress when being separated from attachments figures. However, if the child or individual is fearful or anxious about the separation from an attachment figure to a point that it is developmentally inappropriate then your child may have Separation Anxiety. These children seem to have a persistent fear of harm coming to the attachment figures and they have thoughts of events that could lead to the loss of their primary caregivers. They may have nightmares and present with physical symptoms. The child usually presents with crying, clinging, complaining about separation, calling for the parent after the parent has left. Some of the physical symptoms that may present are headaches, nausea, abdominal pains, sleep difficulties, light-headedness and palpitations. These symptoms are not due to any medical conditions. In order for a diagnosis to be made symptoms need to be present for more than four weeks. The symptoms of separation anxiety increase when a child enters schooling.  

Studies have shown that SAD can be accounted for a heritability around 73% (Bolton et all, 2006). A dysfunction in the amygdala is one of the main regions implicated in anxiety. Environmental factors may also play a part in SAD. Some of these factors could be over protective parents, separation or divorce, illness in a parent

Mother’s guilt

There is no such thing as a perfect parent only a good enough. Usually mothers who are feeling guilty are good enough mothers as it shows that they care and they are trying.  When a parent does not try and they do not care then we have a problem. Have a positive attitude and cut yourself slack.  Nurture your friendship with other mothers as you will be able to share your experiences and get support. At times it is healthy for others to take care of your children as the saying goes “it takes a village to raise a child.” The best gift a mother can give her children is to take of her as well.

TIPS on helping children separate from you:

  • Educate yourself about separation anxiety and anticipate it
  • Listen to your child’s feeling and fears. Do not minimise what they are feeling. Talk about it and be empathetic but also remind the child that you will be returning. Perhaps remind them of a time when you had left them and fetched them in time that was promised. Smaller kids usually need to see the time on watch in a classroom. For example you will say “I will fetch you when the big hand is on the 12 and the little hand goes to the 2.”  Remember that although you are empathic you still need to set limits. Therefore you will say  something on the lines of “I respect and understand that you are feeling worried, however I will be returning  but there are rules that need to be followed, so you have to stay at school until mummy fetches you at 2 pm.”
  • Have a routine so that it provides a security net for the child. Children who have separation anxiety usually have fears of either you or them being unsafe.
  • Praise the child’s efforts
  • Make saying goodbye a positive experience. Remember that children can pick up on your fears. If you are an anxious parent, you need to seek help and deal with your anxiety so that it does not project onto your child. Seek counselling, get support from other parents, stay busy and enjoy your time.

Most importantly remember never to make your child feel guilty when they are required to separate from you. Be upbeat and encourage your child’s plans.