J.P. asks from Arlington, WA on July 21, 2008
7 Year Old Daughter with Extreme Separation Anxiety!!!!
I need help!! My daughter is 7 years old. She has (what I would call), extreme separation anxiety. It never fails... when its time to go to school, she suddenly comes down with a big stomach ache and panic attack. When she is going to a friends house or to the babysitter, she has a big stomach ache and panic attack. Last weekend she spent two nights with gma and gpa, and kept them up during the night with a "nervous tummy ache." When my husband and I try to talk to her, or talk her through it, she explains it to us as "her tummy feels very nervous because she is away from one of us" and "it makes her tummy hurt because she worries." I am so upset because I don't know how to help her. I took her to the doctor, and he did blood tests and everything was normal. He said she has separation anxiety and nervousness, and that it is normal. I thought it was pretty extreme for 7 years old. She only does it when she is not going to be with my husband or I, or with her big brother. During the school year, this was almost a daily occurence. She would get so worried and upset, that her teacher starting noticing it and communicating with me about it. I am blessed because her 1st grade teacher could help her through it. She would talk her through her nervousness and reassure her, and then my daughters tummy ache and panic would subside. We are heading into another school year and I worry that her new teacher might not be understanding or put up with it. Any ideas??
R.R. answers from Seattle on July 22, 2008
It’s a painful thing to experience your child upset in this way day to day. Our daughter is almost 10. She was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder when she was 7. We noticed separation difficult for her since she was very little. And, I mean extreme. Everyone always told me this was normal and she would get over it. Meanwhile, she was suffering every day. By first grade it was clear she was not getting over it. We were soooooooooooooo thankful her first grade teacher was kind and helped her through her worries and concerns. This could range from worry that children were fighting for her attention (she felt guilty she couldn’t give everyone her attention at the same time) or worry because they had a fire drill. She would worry when other children would worry. She would worry if the teacher seemed busy or upset. She just worried about every little thing. And, when she would worry she would spiral. It eventually would make her think of us and our safety here at home, while she was away from us. The following were triggers for our daughter (still are): Mondays (returning to school), substitute teachers, a change in the schedule, a field trip, a child making a scary comment (what happens if there’s a fire when you’re away from home, what if your mom got hurt, etc), stays away from us were difficult because she didn’t feel she could trust her anxieties with other people and so on. I’m happy to discuss in more detail, if wanted.
Here’s what I would do to help her (in no particular order):
Start putting words to her feelings (you can write it on a piece of paper or she can) and put it in a jar. The worries are private and safe and gone from her head. She will start to learn to identify them and let go.
Careful with transitions – talk to the teacher, the school counselor and every Monday maybe she can go see the school counselor to ease into the school routine, etc.
Set up “safe people” for her to go talk to if she’s really feeling worried and anxious. For our daughter, this was the school counselor and a couple select teachers she loved.
Send notes to school with her so she can read them when she’s feeling concerned.
Enroll her in a class with other children who have anxiety (with the counselor). They play fun games, they talk about their feelings, and they read books related to worries. It was great for our daughter.
Identify her triggers (certain teachers, kids, routine changes, etc. and set up a plan for her). Our daughter had a health plan to allow her to go to her safe people when she needed, to call home if it was just simple reassurance, to give me notice when a substitute was coming in, notice of fire drills, lock downs, etc.
Take notice of her diet (we can’t do anything with high fructose corn or caffeine, etc)
Regarding your family, make sure they take her anxiety seriously. Our daughter felt terrible when she was treated like her worries were just childish. These kids are smart and they pick up on things other people may not notice, feel or even think to worry about. And, their worries are very real to them. They need reassurance, strength, and consistency to help teach them how to manage their fears.
Our daughter (thankfully) is really verbal. She has been able to walk me, our family, the counselor and school through her anxious mind. She told us that she felt ashamed and that her confidence was dying inside as a result of her anxiety and how everyone treated her. She would try and hide it, which would make it worse. She started developing rituals (OCD) to deal with her anxiety. They took up time, and made her feel even worse. That’s an entirely different story….I can talk more about that if you would like.
The reason we had our daughter diagnosed was because things became worse and worse and we knew (like you) second grade was around the corner. We have never medicated. We do relax techniques, have tea time, discussions about her worries and concerns, and really support her feeling like she has a voice. And, definitely I have to make sure I don’t show her my concerns. I have to be truthful but not "worried" about it. Just very matter of fact with her.
I am happy to report that she is doing great!!!! We haven’t had a sick stomach in over a year. She has learned some excellent coping skills, while being supported through all of this. She still has anxiety, don’t me wrong, but we’ve learned how to manage it, head it off, help when she is facing a trigger.
Good luck. If I can answer any questions, please feel free to e-mail me. I had endless days with our daughter’s anxiety. I know how hard it really can be, emotionally, for the entire family.
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K.R. answers from Bellingham on July 22, 2008
This is completely normal, first of all. When kids hit age 5 and older they start to see themselves as seperate from their parents and have worries about death, injury, etc. to one of their parents at night, during times of seperation, etc.
My own 6-year old daughter gets tummy aches. I thought it was all kinds of things, but realized that is just where she carries her stress. I remind her to calm down and breathe.
Try easing your daughter's fears by giving her a picture of your family, or at least of you, or her father, to keep with her in her pocket. She can look at it while at school.
I used to let my daughter pick one of my inexpensive pieces of jewelry to wear when she was first away from me. I told her then she would have a part of me with her all day. Also, remind her you are always in her heart.
Remind her every morning that you love her and everything will be just fine. Leave it at that, though. Our tendency, as mother's, is to over-think things sometimes. If she feels YOU are anxious because you are anticipating her reaction and tension, it will just make her MORE worried. She needs to see you are strong and sure that everything will be just fine.
I know you are concerned for her, but don't let HER see how much.
Show her affection, but try not to be over-protective. It's these little daily challenges that give our kids strength and help them grow into capable and responsible adults.
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K.W. answers from Seattle on July 21, 2008
I am somewhat in the same boat as you are. My 9 yr. old would complain almost daily during the school year that she had a stomach ache and that she didn't want to go to school. When she came home, she would always comment about how she hated school, and when I tried to ask her why, she wouldn't say much. The few reasons she gave varied, but I worried that maybe something was up, that maybe something was happening at school to her to make her hate it so. She's asked several times if she can switch schools, and I worry about why she wants to do it.
I talked to her teacher about it, and she always tells me that she is fine in school, gets good grades, and that everyone likes her, that she has friends, and no one mistreats her, and I know my daughter loves her teacher and that her teacher loves her, so I am completely stumped.
I wonder if maybe her teacher is just too busy to notice if something is going on with someone in her class, either at lunch or on the playground. I know she's not there *just* for my child, and can't possibly know everything she experiences in her day, so if the problem persists this coming school year, I think we will see the counselor and see if we can narrow down what's going on.
My daughter is normally a happy, healthy, outgoing kid at home, so I don't have the exact same situation as you do, but I know with my daughter it's not some trauatic experience she's had at home that's affecting school--it's anxiety about school, or maybe because she doesn't want to be away from me. She was always very attached to me as a child until preschool, but I thought she'd overcome it. Maybe it's just manifested itself in her "hatred" for school. I noticed that it seems to be worse when I work. I had been a sahm most of her childhood until this time last year, and even though she has never been raring to go to school, she complained alot less. And almost daily since I've been working again(I had quit my other job in Feb. of this year), she tells me how she hates my job, and tells me she wishes I didn't have to go to work. It breaks my heart because I feel like I should maybe be here with her.
Have you ever had a time that you didn't work when your daughter wasn't anxious whenever she was away from her family? Has she been this way her whole life? Could something traumatic have happened to her when she was away from her family, that maybe she's afraid might happen again? Maybe a psychologist could help her and your family sort out what's going on with her.
I'm thinking that a psychologist is the next step we will take for my daughter if she starts having trouble again during the school year.
I wish us both luck, and hope that both of our daughters feel better soon. It's so sad when our kids are suffering and we can't help them because we don't know why.
Good luck, J..
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T.S. answers from Eugene on July 22, 2008
You have already received a wide spectrum of advice. I know how challenging this can be, and since you have an older child, it is also possible that he is very different (outgoing) which can put your daughter's extra sensitivity into sharp relief, making it seem even more extreme.
You don't say if your daughter has had this as a personality trait all her life, or if it is relatively recent since she began school. That would be one way to consider whether she is just more sensitive than most and is developing her independence more slowly--but normally, or whether she may fall into a level of anxiety that may develop into a disorder.
I am a counselor, and I am very uncomfortable with the idea of diagnosing young children with a "disorder" simply because most things we consider to be disorders in adults are part of the normal developmental process in children. It is when the individual never grows through it adequately-for whatever reason-that it becomes a disorder.
With a young girl, while it is POSSIBLE that such a diagnosis would be appropriate (and even helpful, if it gets her needed assistance at school), I would begin from the idea that she may simply be a more sensitive soul than other kids.
My own youngest daughter has always been this way--more sensitive than usual to every little nuance of sound, light, and emotion. Even as an infant, she became overwhelmed easily just with being outside--the sunshine and "bigness" of everything seemed too much for her until she was about 6 weeks old. I was, by contrast, taking her older sister quite easily to large concerts at 3 weeks old. Unlike my other daughters, who were boisterously going on sleepovers and off on a train on vacation with grandparents at 4 years old, my youngest still, at age 9, is somewhat cautious about being away from us overnight.
HOWEVER...this youngest one is also turning out to be a musical prodigy--she has perfect pitch, and can sit down at the piano (since age 6) and play not only the melody but figure out the chords and key changes from a classical piece heard once on the radio a week before. She is taking ballet lessons from a former principal dancer with a number of major ballet companies, and he says he believes she has the talent to dance professionally once she matures. She composes music that nobody would guess was from a child. She also seems to have a deep understanding of and empathy to the feelings of others, and offers that when others are sad or hurt.
So, in her case, she does not seem to have a disorder--just a much higher level of "sense intelligence" that takes her more time to learn to integrate into how she manages it.
Each year, she gets more able to handle things at a "normal" level, as she gains maturity and self-knowledge.
I think you have the possibility that your daughter may be like this, and just needs more time and gentleness around her needs so she can fully integrate her sensitivities. Or, as others have suggested, if this hasn't been going on all her life, there may have been something traumatic that occurred that made her feel unsafe without you.
Either way, finding a counselor who does not typically diagnose and medicate children, but who can help her find a safe way to express herself and figure out her needs, can give you some very valuable information about how best to help her.
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R.R. answers from Seattle on July 22, 2008
If you can think back to when this started and the events that were taking place at that time. My niece went through this starting at age nine, it took some time for my sister to find the cause, What had happened was a school friends mother had been killed in an accendent and the girl had no one to take her right away and she was put in a temp. home. After my sister finally got to the cause, she always assured my niece this would not happen to her, it helped a bit but then my sister got creative. Each day she would write her daughter a note to read if started to feel bad in school or where the child would go with out her or dad, she had her carry a family picture to look at also durring these times. There are many ways to do this, you will just have to try differnt things until you hit on what works. Adopted childern go through this also at some point in there lives and they have many books on it. But I would try to think back to the events that may have led to this, it could be as simple as a story of a child or animal loseing it's mother, such as Bambi, Childerns minds work in funny ways.
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J.M. answers from Seattle on July 21, 2008
I would STRONGLY recommend that you pick up a copy of the book Emotional Intelligence. (I'm sure you can get a used copy on amazon.com at a really good price.) I took a psychology class in college that was based entirely on this book. It really is excellent. It essentially teaches the reader how to recognize different personality traits and how to create an environment that emphasizes and supports the attributes of each child.
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R.H. answers from Anchorage on July 22, 2008
My daughter had some separation anxiety as a child, not to the extreme that your daughter has. We got her a locket and put pictures of her father and myself in it, so Mommy and Daddy were always with her. She also had a sweater of mine that she could take to school and leave for days when she needed Mommy hugs at school. She would wrap the sweater around her and snuggle for a little extra comfort. When the sweater needed a bath or didn't have my scent in it anymore she would bring it home for a "refill of hugs". She is now a very independent and outgoing 18 year old getting ready for college.
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J.M. answers from Portland on July 22, 2008
I would think that a child counseler could really help her out. Maybe something tramatic happened while away that she hasnt told you about, or she watched a movie that scared her, or she is just worrier, but whatever it is, she needs to learn how to deal with it and a counseler could really help with that. They are trained on what to say and how to pickup on things we would just pass off as nothing. Most insurance companies will pay for it, especially if it is causing physical symptoms.
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