Separation Anxiety: What it is and How to Help

Separation Anxiety

“I don’t wanna go!”

Oh…it’s a dreaded battle!   Going off to summer camp, staying with a relative or starting a new school year can trigger some big emotions and behaviors in kids.

Many parents find their child’s anxiety overwhelming or embarrassing.

It creates family problems- even resentment.  Parents aren’t sure what to do.

Firm parenting can escalate things and a soft approach can perpetuate the problem.   Parents argue about who’s tactic is ‘best’ and it’s now an all-consuming issue!

SIGH…

Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is an issue that happens with lots of kids (and adults).  It’s the excessive fear or distress that can happen when kids think about separating from home or from the people they’ve become attached to.

In early years, separation anxiety is normal (even healthy).  This developmental anxiety usually ends at around age 2, when toddlers begin to understand that a parent may be out of sight right now but will return later.

As a disorder, separation anxiety happens when a child has more anxiety than the expected level for their age.

With a separation anxiety disorder, children may cling to their parents excessively, refuse to go to sleep without a caregiver, need someone with them at all times or be reluctant to attend camp or sleep at friends’ homes. Kids may also have physical symptoms such as headaches, nausea or tummy trouble.  They may have excessive worries, nightmares or irrational fears.

Separation anxiety disorder is the most prevalent anxiety disorder in children under the age of 12.

Diagnosed as a disorder, the symptoms must cause a problem in school, social or personal function.  In children, the anxiety symptoms would be present for at least 4 weeks and in adults at least 6 months.

How is Separation Anxiety Developed?

The cause of separation anxiety disorder is unknown, but there are some common threads.

  • Major stressors (such as a loss, divorce or disaster)
  • Overprotective or intrusive parenting
  • Inherited genetic or family patterns
  • Many cases have no known trigger

What you can do

Most parents feel overwhelmed by the issue, but the best gift you can give your child is a healthy parent.

So receive this as permission all you Moms, Dads, Grandparents and Caregivers… Take good care of yourself.  

Our brains have mirror neurons and our children are very sensitive to us by reflecting (mirroring) back what is modeled to them.

Many parents with anxious children struggle with anxiety themselves.  You may feel you can ‘hide’ this from your children, but you are fooling yourself. Just as you can feel the tension between two arguing people without being told about their tiff, your child can also feel your anxiety even when you try to hide it.

Healthy parental self-care is essential.

For older children and adults, counseling and changes in parenting approaches can also help.   I’ve written an article on helping children with anxiety with more information and helpful ideas.

For younger children, here are some tips:

  • Keep healthy snacks available (unstable blood sugar makes emotions difficult to handle…in other words, avoid ‘hangry’ moments)
  • Keep a routine or schedule.  When changes occur, help your child by keeping a calendar or making them part of managing the schedule.
  • Avoid overly processed foods or sugar.  These foods encourage inflammation in our body, which is associated with anxiety and depression.
  • Keep your child hydrated.
  • Have nighttime routines and limit screen time (particularly before bed).
  • Make sure your child is getting regular physical activity.
  • Treat the anxiety seriously and react with understanding, patience, and confidence: “I know you don’t want me to go away right now, but I will be back after school.” Do not tease or be unkind by saying things such as ‘Quit acting like a baby‘.
  • Stay calm and matter-of-fact.
  • Be flexible and firm.  Giving into your child’s anxiety will often make the problem worse, but being inflexible can escalate the issue and create a traumatic experience.  Stand firm, but think big picture and offer some flexibility where you can.
  • Communicate with your child’s teacher and show confidence to your child that you have trust in the school.
  • Give lots of love and attention. Young children learn faster when they receive necessary attention and affection.
  • Practice short-term separations and build up your child with positive reinforcement when they show independence.
  • Do not sneak away from your child. While tempting, this approach will lead to problems with trust and usually increase anxiety.
  • Role play upcoming scenarios like the start of school or a visit to Grandma’s.
  • Avoid over-labeling your child as anxious or giving too much attention to the anxiety.  What you feed grows and what you starve tends to wither.
  • Help your child with calm, deep breathing exercises.
  • Don’t feed into the negative anxiety-provoking thoughts, rather, help your child to redirect their thoughts more positively

Keep moving forward

Most importantly, just keep going…

As with most things, there is no magic or quick solution to ‘solve’ anxiety.   Focus on progress, not perfection and guide your child to make appropriately-sized steps in the right direction.

Breaking down these types of big issues can be overwhelming.  Sometimes seeking help from a professional such as a counselor or having an outside perspective can help.

I’ve also created a downloadable tool that can make it a lot easier.  Scroll below and it’s yours for free when you sign up for my monthly newsletter.

I wish you all the best…

Jenna

Jenna Fleming, LPC, NCCJenna Fleming is a licensed professional counselor serving kids, teens, and parents in Georgetown, TX.   She offers counseling servicescourses and classes to support families in getting on track and staying that way.

5 Tips for Happy Family Trips

Family Trips

Ever grabbed chocolate from a box, expecting your favorite caramel square…only to find it was loaded with that weird cherry goo?  Ugh!

That taste just doesn’t go away easily!

What a waste!  All that anticipation just to get a disappointed.

(sorry, cherry lovers)

In all seriousness- lots of folks plan months in advance for the perfect family vacation expecting one thing and getting another.

You spend hours booking flights, finding that right place to stay and packing bags.  Vacationing takes time, money and energy.  Of course, you want it to be enjoyed!

But sometimes when it comes to actually taking the trip-  it can end up feeling like anything but a vacation.

The kids are whining, parents are stressed and everyone’s frustrated.

(That cherry goo doesn’t sound so bad now, huh?!)

Listen…vacationing doesn’t need to be so aggravating.

Having some fun with the whole family can be within reach.  It just takes a little planning ahead and getting into the right mindset.

Here are some Tips:

 1.  Define your desired outcomes– We all want enjoyable vacations, but what that means can be very different for each person.

The number one reason for conflicts in families is communication issues.  Ask your family what their expectations are.  For one person it may mean going on new adventures, for another, it could be to relax.   Those are very different expectations!  Get clear on what everyone wants so that you can avoid catastrophe.  Not everyone will get their exact ‘made-to-order’ vacation and that’s okay.  The act of clearing up communication alone can stave off a lot of frustrated, invalidated and unhappy moments.

2.  Decide what’ll get you there-  Knowing what is the first step, planning how is next.

Don’t fret if family members have different expectations.  It’s really common for one partner to want a relaxing vacation, another to want an adventurous one and the kids just want to play!  Ask your tribe “What will help us have the vacation we want?” You may be surprised how much there is in common.  For instance- whether a person wants an adventurous, relaxing or fun-filled vacation, it’s likely they want the family to be able to get along.  Talk about these things.  It really helps by creating awareness and ownership of everyone’s part in the family experience.

3.  Plan for the tough moments-  Think about what may block the good times from rolling.

Fights, excessive tattling, begging Mom/Dad to buy something or bedtime battles can turn Paradise Island into the Island of Aggravation.   Does your son need a special blanket to sleep well?  Could your kids earn spending money before the trip?  Do you know your daughter misbehaves when parents are stressed?  Do you get stressed if you don’t have an itinerary- or just the opposite?  Know thyself!  Know thy family!  Plan accordingly.

4.  Take proactive measures–  The best way to deal with difficult behavior is to prevent it.

Having the knowledge of what makes a great vacation is wonderful, but insight is almost useless without action.   Decide what’s in your control, what predicts the outcome you want and what’s the best leverage to get you there? How can you best plan for the bumps so they don’t send the whole family off track?  Start verberizing what you know will help.  Then use the Nike method- just do it!

5.  Have the right attitude– Vacationing is a great time to unplug from our familiar world and dive into something new.

The change of pace can be refreshing, exciting and sometimes unpredictable. The only guarantee is that things won’t always go exactly as expected.  And that’s okay- Life’s really about moving with the flow, not against it.  These summer days won’t last forever and this time with your family is precious.  Having the right attitude helps with your own stress and it spills out into your whole family, making it enjoyable for everyone else, too.  Be present, laugh and enjoy the little moments.   If you get caught up in a moment of stress (as we all do), breathe, smile, and ask yourself “What’s the worst possible outcome?“.  Often it’s not so bad.

The best adventures are colorful ones filled with highs, lows and wild times!

And there is no such thing as a perfect path- just enjoy the one you’re on.

Family life is quite the adventure.  A little planning and having the right attitude can help us to relax and enjoy a bit more of the vacation we all want!

And you may want to even grab a few chocolates for the road (btw…the cherry ones actually aren’t so bad once you have a few…it’s mostly the shock factor that gets ya).

I wish you the very best adventures ahead…

Jenna

Jenna Fleming, LPC, NCCJenna Fleming is a licensed professional counselor serving kids, teens, and parents in Georgetown, TX.   She offers counseling servicescourses and classes to help families enjoy life more fully and get to a smoother, healthier path.

3 Things You Can Do Now- to help with your child’s behavior

3 Things You Can Do For Child's Behavior

Ever feel like your end results aren’t anything like what you really wanted for your family or for your child?

For instance- you want your child to do well in school and so you’ve set homework as a priority.  You have the time carved out and the homework area set- but at the end of ‘homework time’, things end with you being frustrated and your child crying and saying she hates school.

Not cool, fun or effective- for anyone!

Listen, you aren’t alone!  Most parents want good things for their children.  But good intentions does not always equal good results.

The following are a few shifts in thinking, responding and questioning to make powerful change for actually GETTING more of that outcome you want.

And bonus…every single shift can be immediately implemented!

1.  Turn Down the ‘Shark Music’.

“Here we go again…”,  “She always has to have it her way”, “He can’t take no for an answer”…

Da dum, Da dum, Dadumdadumdadum (my attempt at the Jaws music)

We all do it- give into doom and gloom thoughts that keep us trapped in our fears about the future or stuck on what’s happened in the past (aka “shark music”).

The key is not getting stuck there- and choosing a better soundtrack!

This type of thinking predicts negative outcomes and leaves us feeling totally powerless.  Parenting with ‘shark music’ looming in the background leads us to react and not respond with calm, thoughtful intention.

And worse- our kids feel this and that translates to them generally feeling fearful, frustrated, shut down and trapped.

Notice your background music and what’s not helpful.  Turn the volume down on the negatives by giving your valuable attention to thoughts that are actually helpful and truthful.  Here are a few to try on for size:

  • “Change is possible.”
  • “Mistakes happen.”
  • “How else can we handle the situation.”
  • “We can do this!”

2.  Become More Self-Aware.

Positive thinking is great, but you can’t just think yourself into better outcomes- you behave your way into them.  Notice your typical reactions to tough behaviors and be open to doing something different.  I bet you have certain ‘buttons’ and some general reactions.

Think about the times you’re most likely to be reactive or to have that ‘button’ pushed.

For instance the dreaded homework time or when your child talks back.

What’s your typical reaction at those times?

Do you yell, stonewall, or overly punish?  Maybe your reaction is just to give in- that seems so much easier at the moment.

Now ask yourself- are these the responses you want and more importantly, are they helpful?  Stay rooted in your values and the positive outcomes you want.

Jot down things you can do to bring yourself to a more thoughtful place- breathe, limit your distractions, focus on solutions.  These things can help you parent more responsively (vs reactively).

3. Ask Better Questions.

When your child consistently shows up with behaviors you don’t want, get out of the autopilot reactions that aren’t working.

Quit asking “What’s wrong with my kid?” and start asking these three questions.  They’ll help you figure out what is going on, what you want your child to learn and how to do that more effectively.

Question #1: Why did my child act this way?  Behavior is simply another form of communication.  Use that to your advantage and listen to what it tells you.  Could your child be telling you she needs help organizing herself at school?  Is your child telling you he is overwhelmed?  Is your child seeking attention, boundaries or control?

Question #2: What do I want my child to learn?  The goal of discipline isn’t about punishing. The goal is for your child to learn.  Dealing with tough behaviors is an opportunity for you to teach.  Get rooted in your values and decide what life-skills may need strengthening- responsibility, focus, respect, self-control, appropriate ways to express big feelings…

Question #3: How can I best teach that?  Considering your child’s age, stage and their emotional, physical and developmental needs, make an informed decision on what your child needs to learn the lesson you very wonderfully want him to learn.   A natural or logical consequence may be the right prescription for learning- or perhaps an opportunity to re-do the behavior is what’s best.  Sometimes a chart or checklist is the solution- every situation is different and this is your opportunity to get creative.

Go for progress.

Simple solutions aren’t always simple in application, but you CAN do this!

If you’re looking for more help on handling tough behaviors and helpful information for happy families, join my free monthly newsletter that has exclusive content, helpful tips, and updates.   You can join by adding your name and email to the form below or to the side of this page.  As a gift for signing up, you’ll gain instant access to my free download “Handling Difficult Behaviors” complete with video and behavior planner.

If you want to dig even further into this topic, I highly recommend Dr. Dan Siegel’s book, No-Drama Discipline or the other awesome books I know, use and love on my resources page.

Just remember that parenting is a journey- and it’s important to focus on progress, not perfection. 

With encouragement along the road…

Jenna

Jenna Fleming is a licensed professional counselor serving kids, teens, and parents in Georgetown, TX.   She offers counseling services, courses and classes to help families enjoy life more fully and get to a smoother, healthier path.

 

The 4 Habits of Parents and Kids Who Don’t Have Anxiety Problems

flowers 4 habits of anxiety

You set clothes out the night before.  Kids went to bed at a decent hour.  You did everything you know to be right.

But it happened again.

Anxiety consumed the morning.

“No- I don’t want to go!  I hate school!  Can’t you just let me stay at home!?” 

Oh, those dreaded cries!  It sucks your energy and gets the day started in the exact opposite tone that you had hoped.

Flooded with doubt you start comparing yourself to other families.  You wonder what everyone else seems to know that you don’t and it feels like anxiety is taking over your family’s joy.

You are not alone!  Tons of families struggle with anxiety problems.  If you or your child experience excessive anxiety, that does not mean there is something wrong. It just means that something you are doing is not working.

There are some key things that people who do not struggle with anxiety do differently.

And here’s the good news…you can do them too and you can model and teach your child as well.  As you learn and handle anxiety better yourself, it will give you the tools for helping your child through this, too.

There are no big secrets or magic tricks here. These are all straightforward habits that you can get into, starting right now.

In the long run, your anxiety will only change if you change your behavior. And even though you can’t control the anxiety, you definitely CAN control what you do and guide your child to do the same.

Habit #1: Don’t put up a fight.

The most basic, most important thing to know about anxiety is that avoidance does not work.  What you resist will persist!

The harder you try to not feel anxious, the more anxious you will feel. This is why anxiety does not get better on its own.

So, the only choice is to accept: instead of fighting the anxiety, simply allow the anxiety to be there. This might sound crazy at first, but it really does work.

People who don’t have an anxiety problem DO still have some anxiety…it’s a normal part of life.  But anxiety feeds off of you fighting with it; so if you fight it, it only gets worse.  Parents, show loving care and help when needed, but please don’t ‘feed’ into your child’s anxiety too much.  Without time and attention, the anxiety eventually backs down without having to do anything about it.

Habit #2: Be okay with uncertainty.

In some way, almost all forms of anxiety stem from fear of uncertainty. Anxious folks really struggle with tolerating the unknown. They feel like they MUST know things and be in control of every situation. But this is never possible…life always involves some uncertainty.

Because of this reason, tools like calendars, schedules, and predictability can help to ease some symptoms with kids or adults.  In fact, I use those tools myself.    Realize, however, that those are tools and that life always involves some uncertainty.  People who do not struggle with anxiety problems know and accept this.

Let go of the excessive lengths to mentally analyze situations or excessively plan for every possible outcome.  Focus on what’s happening in the present moment (life is so much more fun that way).

Habit #3: Let go of the expectations. 

Children and adults with anxiety problems put demands on their feelings. They believe there is a right way and a wrong way to feel for certain situations. For instance, one might think that it’s okay to feel anxious before a test, but it’s not okay to feel panicky for seemingly no reason.

Here’s the truth- you are who you are and you feel the way you feel.  There is not a right or wrong way that someone ‘should’ feel in a given situation.  Feelings come and go. They happen to you and they do not identify you or your child.

It’s for this reason that I highly recommend avoiding terms like “I am anxious” or “I am sad”.  You may feel anxious or you may feel sad in the moment, but all feelings are passing and NOT who you are.  Notice and accept that.

People who don’t have an anxiety problem don’t overidentify with emotions or set unrealistic expectations that they should feel calm all the time. So when anxiety hits, it’s no big deal.  They let themselves feel whatever they feel and move on with their day.

Habit #4: Just Keep Swimming!

My favorite fish, Dory, lived in uncertainty and unknown to the extreme (short term memory issues, if you don’t recall).  Faced with the fear of all fears, fighting for life, her motto ‘Just keep swimming!’ gives light to the power of movement forward and of not becoming frozen in fear.

Listen, you are a courageous and amazing being.  Let that sink in.

Life is filled with highs and lows.  People who don’t have anxiety problems feel anxious (and sad, depressed and lonely)- but they don’t let it stop them from moving ahead.  They keep right on going, in spite of the anxiety. They accept that some anxiety is a normal part of life.  They may even reframe that energy as excitement and simply keep moving.  By not letting it change how they spend their time, they prevent it from becoming a persistent problem.

This is one of the most important habits to know- stay actively moving and looking forward.

Anxiety can seem big, but you are bigger and stronger and I know you can handle this.

If you consistently apply these habits, you will no longer be doing the things that fuel the anxiety and you will begin to see things move in a more positive direction.

There are so many treatment methods, tools and ways to help with managing anxiety.  I wrote a post on this topic, “Helping Children With Anxiety“, which has lots of helpful things to try.

Developing new habits takes courage, effort and time.  But you CAN train yourself to become aware and to make these shifts.  Write down the top 2 habits you’d especially like to focus on.  It’s about progress, not perfection.

Having someone to talk to can really help- an encouraging spouse, parent, friend or counselor can make a big difference.

Need more help? – I have a FREE download to give you support!  Grab it on the sidebar or at the bottom of this page.  You can also contact me for a free counseling/coaching phone consult.

Parenting can be easier- You got this!

Jenna Fleming, LPC, NCCJenna Fleming is a licensed professional counselor serving kids, teens, and parents in Georgetown, TX.   She offers counseling services, courses and classes to help families enjoy life more fully and get to a smoother, healthier path.

4 Keys to Prevent Tough Behaviors

At a loss with handling your kid’s behavior?

Be honest- have you been getting caught up in power-struggles?  Punishments aren’t working and now your kid is just angry.

Many parents don’t see other options.  If they quit nagging, the kids will ‘go nuts’ but they’re unhappy and know that the nagging is poison to everyone.

I get it- handling difficult behavior is, well…difficult.

But there are ways- better and more effective ones- to handle tough behavior and get results.

The best way for dealing with tough behavior is to prevent it from happening in the first place.

I’ve created a video with 4 simple keys that can refocus the family, improve communication and lessen the arguments.  I’ve also got some added notes to help below.

These preventions will help your family use your energy for relationships and learning (not nagging and frustration).

Love unconditionally- The first key seems so simple, yet it’s so big.  There is always a reason for behavior and often it’s to get attention or approval.  If your kid has a belief that their behavior is connected to their worth or your love, the result is an insecure sense of self- and the resulting behaviors.  Set the record straight.  Your love for your child is not based on their performance.  It is based on them being your child.  Period.  We don’t always approve of our children’s behaviors and that’s okay, but your love for your child is always there.

Be Consistent- Let’s face it.  Threats are easy to make, but follow through is tough. Being consistent means keeping promises, having clear expectations and doing what you say. Consistency is one of the most important parent skills because it lets your child know that they can trust you.  When you trust someone, you have more respect for them, less anxiety and won’t waste energy testing their boundaries.  Kids are no different.  Simply put- be a man or woman of your word!

Use Proactive Approaches- Bet you can think of a specific situation that really aggravates you.  Is it always happening at a certain time of day- like homework or bedtime?  If you know some common threads around difficult behavior, rather than reacting as usual, start thinking how you can proactively prevent or detour them. Say your child always throws a fit in the middle of shopping- Are they hungry? Are they bored?  Can you plan ahead with snacks and role-playing the scenario with what to do when your kid gets bored?  Often it’s sibling issues.  Can you set up a win-win agreement about times when tempers flare?

Flip discipline- The typical approach is for a child to have access to many privileges, but when something goes ‘wrong’ the parent sets a boundary or consequence limiting the “fun stuff”.  This works for lots of kids, but for others, it simply does not work. They act like they ‘don’t care’ or waste energy in anger (often escalating the situation) rather than learning the lesson they need to learn.  Try using idea of rights, responsibilities and privileges in your home.  Kids have the right to certain things- food, safety and love.  These things come with no strings attached.  But to access the privileges like television or sports, talk with your child about their responsibilities (your expectations). When a responsibility is not met, this will help to focus on the learning not the anger and help with your consistency.

These aren’t magic solutions, I must admit.  But if you aren’t liking the results in your home, be open to a few new ways of thinking and operating.

These keys will help you lay a strong foundation for addressing that common thread all of us parents have- loving our children through difficult behaviors.

Wishing you smooth roads ahead…

 

Jenna Fleming is a licensed professional counselor serving kids, teens and parents in Georgetown, TX.   She offers counseling services, courses and classes to help families enjoy life more fully and get to a smoother, healthier path.

4 Reasons Kids Misbehave (and what Parents can do)

Have you ever wondered why your kids act up?

Boy, I can think of several visits with friends gone sour after my kid’s constant interruptions.  Or the times when a full-blown fit erupts in the checkout line.  Every parent can understand these moments of aggravation and it’s also natural for kids to test their world and make mistakes.

What if I told you that your kid’s behavior is telling you something important and that understanding what it is can help decrease frustrations (theirs and yours)?

There are four common reasons kids misbehave.

Knowing why your kids act up can help you determine how to respond.  Below are those common reasons and some helpful tips parents can take.

 1.  They are testing your boundaries!  If kids aren’t sure where the ‘limit’ is, they are guaranteed to do some testing to find out just where that is.

What you can do: Check your boundaries! Expectations are unseen boundaries.  The only way kids ‘see’ them is by how we communicate and our consistency of them.  Get clear on what you want and explain that simply to your kids.  Be true to your word- if you say something, follow through.  Consistency is an essential ingredient in handling behavior and raising healthy kids.

2.  They are telling you something!  Did you know that behavior is one of the primary ways kids communicate?  I can think of a time or two my kid’s behavior communicated clearly that they needed more sleep!

What you can do: Listen to the behavior! Don’t get caught up on dealing just with actions- see what’s under their attitude.  The most common things kids tell us with behavior is a need for more power/control, feeling overwhelmed, wanting attention or having a physical need (like hunger, thirst or sensory overload).  Help your kids by naming their need and then guiding them to help meet it.

3.  They haven’t learned the skill.  Sometimes parents expect what their child either hasn’t or isn’t ready to learn.  A four year old’s attention span is way different than a 14 year old’s (though some have made cases against it).  You may have an unrealistic expectation.  Many parental frustrations fall under undeveloped or lagging executive function skills- the developmental skills that have to do with managing oneself.

What you can do: Role play scenarios before going into a new situation.  Be clear with your expectations. Help your child organize themselves with schedules, charts or calendars.

4.  They are acting like you. Yes, I said it!  More than we realize, our little ones are reflections of us.  Within the last 5 years, neuroscience has discovered just how wired we are to mimic our parents through the discovery of  mirror neurons.  Children may not always do what they are told, but they absolutely do what they see.

What you can do: Be the change you wish to see in the world.  I love that quote attributed to Gandhi.  It’s truth is powerful.  Be aware of your actions, reactions, and in every way how you are modeling.  Most importantly, take care of yourself and tend to your own needs.  Children with anxiety often have a parent with anxiety.   By tending to your needs, staying positive and focusing on modeling correct behavior, your child will benefit greatly.

Children don’t come with instructions, but understanding some basics about their behavior  can really help.

Be consistent, aware of needs, focus on teaching and modeling and I tell you, you will see improvement.

Yes, there’s still gonna be bumps along the road, but understanding and acting on this will help smooth some of those rough spots.

Smile, play and enjoy the journey, parents!

Jenna Fleming is a licensed professional counselor serving kids, teens and parents in Georgetown, TX.   She offers counseling services, courses and classes to help families enjoy life more fully and get to a smoother, healthier path.