child holding onto mother's legs
With summer just around the corner, you may be thinking about how your child may react to summer camp (or a solo vacation with grandparents!). Every child responds differently when it comes time to separate from mom and dad. Some may look forward with excitement and anticipation while others approach the event with fear or separation anxiety. While many kids worry about being away from their parents, there is such thing as a true separation anxiety disorder. It comes from a combination of genetic and environmental factors, could be triggered by trauma or divorce and affects two to five percent of children. To get your family through the rough spots, it is best to have a plan of attack.
1. Eliminate fear of the unknown. Visiting the camp in advance can be very helpful. “If there is little known about it, there is fear of the unknown so you should be able to dismiss that fear by preparing them,” said Kimberly Rogers, social worker and registered play therapist in Naples. Sharing a brochure or website with your child or even allowing her to have a say in selecting a camp can make a difference on his level of anxiety. Creating distance gradually can also help. “It would be better to start out in smaller amounts of time like a weekend away or trying to leave the child at home with a babysitter for longer than you normally do, just to increase the time apart before they are actually in a different location,” Rogers said.
2. Give your child a resource kit. “This should include a journal where the child can write or draw about his feelings because having a healthy way to release emotions helps him move on, feel happier and actually enjoy the trip or camp,” said Rogers. Ask your child what would make him feel more comfortable. “The child may want a stress ball, coloring book or crossword puzzle,” said Rogers. For some kids, lavender-scented sprays or oils can be soothing.
3. Talk it out. By the time a child goes to camp, she generally should feel secure enough to do so. If she is nervous, excessively worried or suffering from separation anxiety disorder, there are things you can do to help. You can talk to the child about her feelings, provide empathy and be understanding. She may benefit from relaxation techniques or if the anxiety is more severe, psychotherapy may be recommended. “Psychotherapy is talking about your feelings and identifying coping skills and mechanisms to help you adjust to whatever difficulty you are struggling with,” explained Dr. Catherine Ionelli of The Counseling Associates in Naples and Bonita Springs. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) also can be useful. CBT focuses more on relaxation and gives kids a chance to talk about their feelings and develop strategies to manage the anxiety.
4. Let your child know you believe in him. “Show confidence in his ability to be away from you with sentences like ‘I know you will do well, I am very proud of you, and I know you make friends easily’,” said Susan White, a children’s therapist at the David Lawrence Center in Naples. Reinforce that he will be able to seek help if needed from a nurse or caregiver.
5. Offer affirmation. “To prevent separation anxiety, praise your child’s efforts when he is separating successfully,” said Ionelli. Let your child know that you will be reachable. “A lot of times kids with separation anxiety are worried that something is going to happen to their parents so a scheduled phone time might be a good thing to do,” Ionelli said. You can help build her confidence, according to White, by having her say positive statements, such as “I am strong. I am brave. I do many things very well. I am loved. I can ask for help if I need it.”
6. Control your own emotions around your child. “Parents’ feelings may be projected out to the child or the child may have good radar and pick up the parents’ apprehension and get apprehensive themselves,” said Dr. Keith Foster, a psychologist in Naples. Put your best emotions forward. “Parents need to be aware of their own feelings about the impending separation and need to be talking to another adult about the way they are feeling in order to limit the impact on the child,” Foster said.
7. Contribute to your child’s confidence. “Give positive messages, encouragement and allow your child to fail but help him recover from failure,” said Foster. It is important to train your child to be resilient. “Let your child know that he is capable of great things but it is okay to be sad and say to [himself] ‘I miss my family but I am okay’,” said White.
8. Make a plan to stay in touch. You can send letters and pictures. “Always send something familiar from home, something as simple as a pillowcase, blanket, book or stuffed animal that gives a comfort and safety feeling, especially at night,” said White. While girls may cry, boys may internalize emotions more, so do not assume that just because your child seems content that you can skip out on the care packages.
9. Get professional help if needed. If your child has true separation anxiety disorder—worry that continues for more than two to three months—he may need to see a mental health professional. “Depending on the severity and frequency of it, you may want to try a medication which would be a suspending serotonin reuptake inhibitor that helps turn the worry switch off,” White advised.
10. Good communication can make a difference as you approach separation. Try to maintain a positive perspective. “It is healthy for children to learn independence which requires some level of separation, whether it means going away or not,” said Foster. The good news is that kids usually outgrow separation anxiety as they are reassured by their parents and learn healthy ways to deal with their emotions. Your child deserves a chance to explore and verbalize her feelings. “Anxiety is part of being human; we all have it,” said Foster.
by Jamie Lober