Many children experience anxiety when separating from their families when they first attend an early childhood service or start school. There are a myriad of factors to consider when helping a child through any anxiety. At Kids College we specialise in social and emotional learning.
What’s separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety is a common and normal fear that children have of being away from their families.
A developmentally appropriate level of separation anxiety is a sign of the close attachment between children and their families and tends to lessen with age. However, if the anxiety becomes excessive, it can interfere with the child’s daily functioning and learning, and they may be at risk of developing an anxiety disorder.
Separation anxiety can start at around 8 months and reach its peak in babies aged 14-18 months. It usually goes away gradually throughout early childhood. From around six months of age, many children begin to show anxiety when they’re away from close family members. As they don’t yet have a separate sense of self, babies see family members as part of themselves and so feel that a part of them is missing when they’re separated. Babies may not understand that adults will come back after leaving them. Babies and young children may also feel anxious around unfamiliar people and in new settings. We see this in the magic of a peek a boo game with a child. The magic of the surprise that the item or person still exists even when they can’t see them.
Stranger anxiety is similar to separation anxiety. It’s when children get upset around people they don’t know. It can happen from 7-10 months and usually starts to go away after children’s first birthdays
These anxieties are a normal part of development and are nothing to be concerned about. Children are starting to move around more at this stage, so these anxieties make sense from a survival point of view. That is, if children could crawl or walk away from their carers but weren’t afraid of separation or strangers, they’d get lost more easily. Anxiety tends to reduce over time as a child’s familiarity with their early learning service or school increases. Older children also develop a separate sense of self, so better understand that their families will return.
What are the signs?
Children vary in their levels of emotional sensitivity. Some children worry while others are more carefree and don’t show anxiety when separating from family. Children also show their anxiety in different ways – some may be visibly upset or appear nervous, while others may have physical symptoms such as headaches.
Other common behaviours include:
• clinginess and not letting go of a family member • needing a favourite toy to settle
• difficulty joining in social activities with other
• stomach aches and vomiting • difficulties sleeping
• refusing to speak to family members or educators.
Children’s anxiety is generally short-lived. They’re quite often happy playing within a short time of their family leaving. Over time, most children learn to feel safe in their new surroundings and gradually experience less separation anxiety. The process of building trust with us and knowing that the ladies in blue love and care for them and that they are safe with us comes over time.
How does Kids College help children manage anxiety?
By being good role models. Children learn how to cope with difficult situations by watching other people (their role models) listening to what those people say. Do think about how you act and what you say in situations that you find stressful. For example, you might want to avoid saying things like, ‘A spider! You should stay away from spiders. They could kill you’.
We can help by being emotionally available and showing understanding about children’s fears, we help to manage children’s anxiety when it’s too big for them to manage on their own. But it’s important to find a balance between supporting and reassuring children and allowing children to practise managing their own emotions. We do this with a range of strategies:
Working with families
- We communicate regularly with the child’s family and check if there are any issues that may be increasing the child’s anxiety (for example, a death in the family, divorce).
- We develop a clear morning routine with the child’s family so that the child feels safe and can predict when family members will leave and return (for example, sharing a special goodbye hug).
- We ask families to say ‘goodbye’ to their child, let them know when they’ll be back and where they’ll pick them up, and avoid lengthy goodbyes.
- We reassure families that the child is being supported, and communicate which activities are used to help settle the child.
Building trust with the child
- We greet the child each morning or connect them to other staff who the child knows well.
- We are calm, warm, reassuring and friendly.
- We acknowledge their emotions and provide comfort.
- We help the child become engaged in an enjoyable activity once they enter the room.
- We increase the child’s feelings of safety and connectedness by suggesting they bring a familiar toy or photo from home.
What happens when separation anxiety becomes more serious?
By preschool and school age, children are less likely to experience separation anxiety or it’s intensity will reduce. However, a small number of children experience a level of anxiety that interferes with their daily functioning and learning. When children become anxious more easily, more often and more intensely than other children, they may be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, including separation anxiety disorder. About 4% of preschoolers and school-age children develop this condition.
If you’re concerned about a child’s level of anxiety, note whether:
- the child appears more anxious, more often, than other children of their age and level
- their anxiety has continued over a period of time
- their anxiety stops them participating in activities at the early learning service or school or with peers
If you think a child is showing more serious signs of anxiety, come chat with us and let us know what you are noticing, and we can let you know what we see. A good chat can ease nerves and a referral to a mental health professional for an assessment can ensure any anxiety that child has is alleviated by getting the professional support they might need.
Anxiety is more than feeling stressed or worried
Feeling anxious is a survival response to situations where there are dangers or threats, however some people react more intensely to such situations. Whether a diagnosis is made (by a health professional) will depend on how often, how easily and how intensely a child or young person experiences the symptoms of anxiety and how much it interferes with everyday living.
Common signs and symptoms of anxiety include:
- feeling more anxious than others their age and level
- having anxious feelings are consistently very intense
- feelings that persist well after the stressful event has passed
- feeling so distressed that it interferes with their capacity to learn, socialise and do everyday things.
It’s estimated that one in 14 children and young people experience anxiety. There are a range of effective treatments and supports available, focusing on how to enable them to manage their condition.
How do anxiety conditions develop?
An anxiety condition isn’t caused by a single factor but a combination of things.
Various factors play a role, including:
- family history of mental health conditions
- personality factors
- a learnt response
- physical health problems
- other mental health conditions
- substance use
- ongoing stressful events.
Possible triggers for ongoing stressful events include transitions (such as starting at a school), change in living arrangements, family relationship problems, major emotional shock following a stressful or traumatic event, being the recipient of bullying, verbal, sexual, physical or emotional abuse or trauma, and death or loss of a loved one.
What signs should we look out for?
Feeling anxious is a survival response to situations where there are dangers or threats – it helps us to respond efficiently. However, some people react more quickly or more intensely to such situations.
Age is important
There are similarities but also key differences in the way anxiety manifests in people of different ages and developmental stages. For example, if a baby cries when an unfamiliar person wants to hold them, their fear seems perfectly normal for this age. But if a 12-year-old withdraws or refuses to talk to new people and avoids situations where it may be expected, this may be a sign of a more serious anxiety issue. No matter their age, both children and young people can have difficulty finding the words to express what they’re feeling – their behaviour may be the best clue.
Young children are in the early stages of learning how to recognise, understand and respond appropriately to their emotions. Anxiety disorders are less likely to be formally identified in children under five, partly because certain fears are considered normal – for instance, fear of the dark, visiting unfamiliar places or separating from a family member.
Behaviours that might indicate they’re experiencing higher levels of anxiety than average could include:
- taking a long time to calm or settle following separation from a family member on a regular basis
- frequent tantrums that are more regular or severe than others of the same age
- low interest or significant reluctance to interact in social situations
- unwillingness to get involved in unfamiliar activities
- significant difficulty or distress during change or transitions
- clingy behaviour or inability to separate from a favourite educator.
Many children in early childhood will display one or more of the above behaviours; however, if it happens on a regular basis and interferes with the child’s ability to learn and engage in social relationships, then it’s a sign they need additional support.
How educators at Kids College are supporting children with anxiety
Anxiety can be difficult to spot because it presents in many ways. The important point is to notice that there’s a concern and seek further advice and assistance. As an educator our role is not to diagnose a mental health issue- what we can do is notice those children who might be experiencing anxiety and act appropriately.
For children and young people whose anxiety is less severe, social and emotional learning (SEL) programs that build resilience and coping strategies can be very helpful. These can be embedded as part of a whole-learning community approach. At Kids College we run different social emotional programs for each age and stage3 of their learning to support and empower children to overcome anxiety and build their resilience.
On an individual level, there are many helpful ways we support children experiencing anxiety, depending on their developmental age:-
• Give young children the language to label how they’re feeling, so they can learn to identify their emotions (for example, say, “It looks like you might be feeling a bit worried. Sometimes when I feel worried, my tummy feels wobbly”).
- Give notice prior to transitions like starting or stopping activities or moving rooms to help children and young people prepare for change.
- Support families to develop consistent ‘goodbye’ routines for younger children at drop-off, to create a sense of predictability.
- Help children and young people understand that being anxious, particularly when confronting new situations, is normal, but also that there are strategies for managing anxious feelings.
- Help individuals recognise their own internal cues that they’re becoming anxious (for example, if they have a racing heart or are unable to think, identify and practice strategies that help them to manage their anxiety and calm down).
- Use a step-by-step approach. Break tasks down into small manageable chunks, moving up a step when an individual can cope without anxiety (for example, presenting a project to an educator, presenting a project to an educator and two friends, presenting a project to a small group, and so on)
- Help children and young people recall situations where they’ve succeeded despite being anxious, to strengthen their self-belief they can cope with and manage their anxiety.
- Help them understand that avoiding those things that make them anxious, while useful as a short- term fix, is likely to make things harder in the future.
- Encourage children and young people to have a go at things that are new and to understand that it takes time to learn new skills or behaviours.
- Help them to recognise their own self-talk when approaching new situations and to develop some positive coping statements to stop the self- defeating talk.
- Set realistic expectations for challenges and assist children and young people to manage stress associated with tasks.
- Talk about effective and helpful strategies that you use to manage anxiety or stress (for example, talking to friends, positive self-talk, exercise and other relaxation strategies).
- Enlist the support of important people in their lives such as family members, peers and other educators.
Kids College uses the Step ladder approach
The stepladder approach is a technique to help people of all ages slowly learn to conquer their fears and tackle situations they would previously have perceived as overwhelming. It is based on the principals of exposing ourselves to the fearful situations, but by doing so in a way that allows us to achieve small successes in order to move ourselves up the ladder to full exposure.
The step-ladder approach for the treatment of anxiety is medically known as graded or hierarchical exposure. It’s one of the ‘behavioural’ components of cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and it’s useful to know about when encouraging your child to address their fears. This approach can be applied to many common childhood anxieties.
To make a start, picture a simple step-ladder with several rungs. Decide on the final goal (this task becomes the top of the ladder), then determine what an easy starting point might be (this becomes your first step). Next, work out what tasks might serve as intermediate steps with each situation a little bit more challenging than the last as you get closer to the top of the ladder.
When planning your child’s step-ladder, it’s important that the leap between steps isn’t too daunting. If the jump from one step to the next seems too great, consider how you might break it up into a few smaller steps by creating variations based on what it is your child does, how long for, where they try it or who they’re with.
It is important when using this technique that you continue to praise each step conquered and offer rewards for continued encouragement. The great thing about this technique is that it can be used on children of all ages and certainly for adults as well.
How does the stepladder approach work?
The stepladder approach works like this:
- Start with a situation or thing that causes your child the least anxiety. Sometimes you might need to put your child in this situation a few times until she feels comfortable with it.
- Move on to another situation that makes your child feel a bit more anxious. Again, go through it a few times until your child can handle it. Practice is important.
- Work with your child to gradually master more challenging situations. By the end, you should be working together to tackle the situations your child finds most difficult.
When using the stepladder approach for anxiety in children, you can encourage your child by:
- giving him lots of praise for achieving each step on the ladder
- using rewards as incentives for your child to move forward. Rewards might include an extra book in the evening, more cuddle time with you, or a trip to the park. Make sure the reward matches the degree of difficulty – for example, give a big reward for the most difficult step.
Benefits of the stepladder approach
The stepladder approach has several benefits for children:
- Children get used to facing the situations that make them anxious. This is better than avoiding them.
- Children face their fears and find out that they might not be so bad after all.
- Children get to use and practise the skills and techniques that they’ve developed for coping.
- Children get a great sense of achievement as they progress ‘up’ the stepladder.
Tips for making stepladder approach successful
1. Let your child decide what tasks they add to their ladder. If you do need to help with this, make a few suggestions from which your child can choose. As much as possible, your child needs to feel like they’re an active, motivated participant in this process as this makes it more likely that they’ll stick with it.
2. Teach your child some strategies for managing their anxiety before you start. An example might be slow relaxed breathing, or a simple message to think about, for example, “I’m safe and this worried feeling will go away” or “I’m okay and Dad will be back soon”. It’s a good idea to plan and practise these strategies with your child before starting so that they know what to do as soon as they start to feel anxious.
3. Encourage your child to try to stay in the situation until their anxiety has passed. Anxious feelings don’t last forever. In fact, our bodies can only maintain high levels of anxiety for a matter of minutes (rather than hours) but if your child always flees while they’re still anxious, they might never learn this.
4. Wait until your child has mastered one step on their ladder before moving onto the next. This might take one attempt or it might take ten before a step is no longer considered anxiety provoking. It’s always best to work at your child’s pace.
5. Reward success. This doesn’t need to be something expensive or chocolate-coated… Praise, letting your child know how proud you are, suggesting they call a grandparent/close adult to share news of their success or spending some special time together are all great ways to reward your child.
6. Be a good role-model. Children learn so much from us. If they watch us panic each time a dog approaches, they’ll soon be doing the same. Consider what you say and how you behave when you become anxious. Sometimes we have to be as brave as we’d like our children to be!
Example of how to use the stepladder approach with a child who has social anxiety
A child who has social anxiety and refuses to interact with others for fear of making a fool of themselves or doing or saying something embarrassing may benefit from the following example:
1. Put them in a social situation and see if they can say hello to one person they already know.
When that is conquered….
2. Move on to a person they don’t know…..then…
3. Say hello to an adult such as the lady in the bakery or the supermarket….then…
4. Think of someone who may share a similar interest to them and start up a conversation about that topic.
Top tip for settling children at drop off times
Play find the creatures in the Kids College playground in the morning to settle your child into their day. Can you find the frog, lizard, the bird, the ant and the fish?
Support from Health professionals
A range of health professionals and services offer information, treatment and support for anxiety conditions, as well as self-help strategies. Effective treatment helps children and young people learn how to control their anxiety, so it doesn’t control them. The type of treatment will depend on the type of anxiety they’re experiencing. This article was written with input from the following websites and organisations. You can find more information on the following links.
Beyond Blue – Treatments for anxiety
headspace – What is anxiety & the effects on mental health
Orygen – Anxiety and young people
Raising Children Network – Anxiety: the stepladder approach
Find out more about how you can support children and young people with anxiety here.
KIDS COLLEGE FAMILY
At Kids College Childcare we work each day embedding our values and philosophy into each facet of what we do. We continually improve our practices by critically reflecting and engaging in meaningful relationships with our community and for this we need your support and input.
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2.1.1 Wellbeing and comfort. Each child’s wellbeing and comfort is provided for, including appropriate opportunities to meet each child’s need for sleep, rest and relaxation.
5.1.1 Positive Educator to child interactions. Responsive and meaningful interactions build trusting relationships, which engage and support each child to feel secure, confident and included.
5.2.2 Relationships between children. Each child is supported to regulate their own behaviour, respond appropriately to the behaviour of others and communicate effectively to resolve conflict.
‘We aim to support children’s overall sense of wellbeing and increase their emotional intelligence through the love and dedication each of their own unique learning journeys.’
With love, laughter and learning from your friends in the ‘village it takes to raise a child’
Teacher Jen and the Kids College Childcare