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Think back over the school year: how many days did your child miss because he started the morning with a tummy ache or headache that evaporated as soon as you agreed to keep him home? How many days did you insist your child go to school despite her complaint of not feeling well, only to discover that her day went fine once she got there?

Anxiety can tie a stomach into knots, cause a head to pound, even create diarrhea, vomiting, and light-headedness. Although the school year is nearly done, the prospect of anxiety-induced illness continues, looming over summer camp and other stressful activities. If anxiety is making your child sick, what can you do?

According to child psychologist Golda Ginsburg of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, anxious children often have anxious parents. In fact, anxious parents are more likely – two to seven times more likely – to have anxious children. Part of this may be inherited temperament but Ginsburg believes that a lot of childhood anxiety is learned. Parents who are fearful, who encourage their children to be extra cautious, and who hover over them in a worried way communicate to their kids that the world is dangerous. No wonder these kids want to stay safe in bed!

Of course, we worry about the dangers toddlers can get into and we’re constantly on the lookout for dangerous situations. But as kids get older, parents need to lighten up. They need to permit children to handle things on their own and build up confidence in themselves. Small, planned exercises in self-reliance are important to children’s development.

At the same time, sometimes children are placed in situations that are too competitive, too stressful, and too frightening. A coach who yells and is mean is scary no matter how good a coach you think he is. A teacher who is demanding and unhelpful creates stress even if the class has great test scores. A parent who insists on perfection from a child undermines the love between them and causes stress. It’s difficult, sometimes, to see a situation from the child’s point of view. A child is not being soft or lazy if he complains about being under too great a strain. What seems un-stressful to you may provoke an anxiety attack in your child.

If your child seems to be letting anxiety make her sick, what can you do? Here are some tips.

  1. Talk it over later. You might keep your child home when she’s anxiously ill or you might send her off and hope she makes it through the day. Whatever you choose, at the end of the day, when things are calmer, ask about it. Remind her that she was feeling sick but then got to feeling much better. Ask if there was something about the day that made her worried. Find out what was going on, at a time after the matter is settled.
  2. Normalize fear. Never tell a child “you’re not afraid of something like that!” or “only a baby would be afraid of that!” If a child is afraid, he’s afraid. Let him say so without being criticized for it.
  3. Be matter-of-fact. When your child says he’s feeling nervous, talk about that. Accept what he’s saying. But don’t make it your problem. Being worried is part of living an interesting life. Ask, “what’s the worst that could happen?” and talk about how he would manage “the worst.”
  4. Mention it when you feel anxious or afraid. Children think that adults are always in control. When you’re feeling worried or nervous, especially about doing something new, say so. Let your child encourage you. Let her see that being anxious isn’t a reason to stop trying.
  5. Manage your own worries. Don’t hover too much or let your child see you hovering over him. Don’t text him every other minute when he’s away. If you tend to be a worrier, don’t infect your child with your anxiety.

As children grow in self-confidence and experience, they are less likely to feel so overmatched by the day’s prospects that they make themselves sick with worry. Giving them the support and skills to manage themselves is a good thing to do.



© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Join Dr. Anderson in an online conference for teachers and parents. Find out more at Quality Conference for Early Childhood Leaders.

Separation anxiety bothers us. We Americans love independence and self-reliance so our child’s clinginess seems almost un-American. We also worry about how our child will handle going to school. We might have already had difficulty with starting childcare or preschool – lots of tears and stomach aches. Finally we do feel embarrassed and annoyed. We feel inconvenienced by our child’s neediness and then we feel guilty that we feel inconvenienced. Our child is obviously uncomfortable. When will this dependent, clingy, timid behavior end?

It helps to keep in mind that separation anxiety is developmental. It’s a sign of progress! Separation anxiety usually appears first at about the time that babies learn to crawl and cruise. It’s as if they realize that if they can move away from you, you also could move away from them. The best course is to follow you around and wail. Two-year-olds are devoted to their plans for world domination and you are the first subject of their tyranny. Toddlers would love to tell you what to do and to control your movements. Finally, preschoolers are newly aware of danger and quite rightly believe that clinging to your thigh is the best way to stay safe. At each point, children’s desire to keep us close reflects their emerging abilities. This means that separation anxiety is normal.

Separation anxiety can have other causes too. Some children are just naturally slow-to-warm-up and need more time to adjust to new situations. Some children have experienced a traumatic separation – because of a parent’s absence or their own hospitalization – and are fearful of another disruption. And sometimes we even teach our children to be dependent. If we or the child’s older siblings treat the youngest like a baby long after his infant days are past, then we inadvertently support anxious clinging. Kids act the way they think we want them to act and they are quick to pick up on the signals that we’re afraid for their safety and anxiously want to keep them close.

Separation anxiety can take many forms. Of course the child who hides behind you and refuses to go to preschool can be said to have separation anxiety. But we can also include the child who won’t go to bed by herself. We can include the child who favors one parent over the other. Separation anxiety may be behind a child’s refusal to participate along with other kids, preferring to stand on the sidelines with you, and also behind a child’s insistence that a best friend or sibling go along to every event. So what can you do about these behaviors?

Here are seven general principles to keep in mind:1. Understand what can be changed and what can’t. If your child has always been slow-to-warm-up to new things, even as an infant and if you’ve come to the conclusion that this is just how your child is… then you can’t change that. Don’t frustrate yourself and drive your child crazy by trying to make him into a person he’s not.

2. Take your child’s age into consideration. Is it possible that this is “just a stage”? Are you concerned about behavior that started recently? See if things don’t settle out on their own in a couple weeks.

3. Avoid creating an expectation for anxiety. Do you unconsciously shield your child from a person who stops to talk? Do you automatically pull your child closer when she’s confronted by a new situation? Try to notice and counteract the way you signal your nervousness.

4. Focus on one behavior at a time. Maybe your child screams when you leave her at childcare and insists that only her dad can get her dressed and won’t sleep in her own bed and on and on and on. She’s limiting herself in so many ways and you’d like to wave a magic wand and have it all be better. It’s actually easier to tackle one issue at a time.

5. Be understanding and supportive without shaming or enabling. Understanding is saying, ”I know this is hard for you and…” Being supportive is saying, “I’ll be right here. When you get over there, wave at me and I’ll wave back.”  Avoiding shaming means you never say, “Don’t be a baby” or “Come on. Be a big boy.” Avoiding enabling means not saying, “That’s okay. I’ll say it for you.”

6. Provide frequent opportunities for practice. When your child finds speaking up scary it’s natural to want to protect him from that. But he needs more opportunities to talk, not fewer. Instead of sheltering your child, make sure he gets around and has plenty of casual interactions.

7. Notice when your own discomfort is the source of your annoyance. If you find yourself getting impatient with your child’s separation issues, take a moment to figure out why. Are you annoyed because you feel like your child is letting you down or embarrassing you? Remember to separate your own feelings from your child’s needs.

Try to keep separation anxiety in perspective. Your child needs your support in learning to step out confidently on his own.

© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson.  All rights reserved.