One in four kids is estimated to have anxiety, which has risen steadily since COVID-19. Its symptoms can be baffling from no longer wanting to…
The problem is that its symptoms tell us very little about what is at the root of the feelings. Parents often turn to their kids for answers asking, “What is the matter?” When they are met with blank stares, puzzling explanations, or protestations of, “I don’t know!” it can elevate a parent’s anxiety as well. The problem with anxiety is we cannot make headway unless we can make sense of it at its root level, as asserted by Gordon Neufeld, an internationally respected developmental and attachment-based psychologist. There is an epicentre to anxiety, but we often dance around its symptoms instead of reaching into its core, where the real problem lies.
When the mind and body are in turmoil, anxiety will follow wherever you go – from your bed to the dinner table, and to school.
If relational attachment is the greatest of all human needs, then what is the most impactful and alarming of all experiences? The answer is separation—to find yourself apart from your attachments, which pushes the brain’s alarm system into full tilt as it tries to close the void that has opened up. You can witness a young child’s desperate pursuit to get back into attachment when you tell them it’s time for bed and they begin clamouring for one more drink of water, a snack, a trip to the bathroom, another story, or plead, as one clever boy told his father, “Please come back—the spiders keep throwing me out of bed.” Separation is provocative because attachment is key to our survival.
The deeper a child’s attachment roots, the greater their capacity to reach their potential as a social, separate, and adaptive being.
Even success can create alarming feelings as the child lives in fear that they could lose the advances they have gained. Sensitive children who feel they are too much for their parents to handle are often anxious because exasperated adults convey they don’t know how to take care of them, leading to insecurity. Separation alarm can drive temporary anxiety symptoms to more chronic levels that can pervade all areas of life. The fall-out from chronic anxiety may lead to additional behavioural problems such as anger, agitation, feeling overwhelmed, disconnection, and depression, which can be misinterpreted, or overreacted to, by adults. While the symptoms of anxiety and sources of separation for kids become better understood, concurrent research suggests that if separation is the problem, then surely connection will be the cure.
Separation alarm can also be attributed to physical separation like losing a parent to a new job, travel, injury, sickness, or introducing a new partner.
When a child is alarmed, it is a time to prune out unnecessary separations and focus on tethering them to the adults in their life. This can be achieved by orienting them to the invisible matrix of adults that will care for them. For example, telling a child, “When I take you to school, your teacher will take over for me. They are in charge, I trust them to care for you, and they know how to reach me if you need me. I will look forward to picking you up, too,” helps to assure them that they are safe and loved, can feel connected to the adult who will take your place in your absence, and that you are never far away for long. If separation discipline is used in the home, it is also necessary to move away from time-outs and punitive consequences to more attachment and developmentally-friendly discipline, such as collecting a child before directing. This involves getting into their space in a friendly way, positively interacting with them, engaging in conversation, or paying attention to what they are focusing on, until you can feel the child warm up, start to listen, and want to follow. Using structure and routine to help them navigate their day also helps them feel safe. Kids who are anxious love ritual because it’s predictable, thus, providing security.
If a child is anxious, it is also important to shield them from further causes of frustration wherever possible—from relationships that don’t work well to avoiding introduction of new sources of separation.
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