What is childhood anxiety? What is separation anxiety? How can you help your child/grandchild with the transition from home to nursery/pre-school and then to primary school? Author, early years professional, parent and anxiety expert, Stacey Turner is on hand to provide the answers to these questions and to discuss strategies that can help parents, grandparents, educators, and anyone who works with children tackle the problems of childhood and separation anxiety. Stacey is available for interviews, editorial commissions, and comment. Stacey is currently re-writing I’m Going To Nursery, so the book is suitable for all families. I’m Going To School will be published in 2021.

Part of Stacey’s mission within her charity is to reach as many people as possible and help make a difference. She has plans to set up an online support network and all proceeds go straight into the charity.

As a professional I have helped many children to overcome separation fears, and to settle at nursery and during the early years of primary school. It’s much more common than people think, and even in those children who don’t usually suffer, most have the wobbles at some time! I have undertaken a lot of research and I’ve been through an extreme situation of separation anxiety that was borderline separation anxiety disorder, experiencing first-hand what it is like with my eldest daughter. Having experienced the situation on both sides, as a parent and as an early years professional, I can offer you the reassurance that we can support our little ones through this difficult time.

I can promise you, it’s not naughty behaviour! Anxiety is an emotion. It’s anxious thoughts creeping in – usually in the expectation that something bad is going to happen – and the anxiety takes over. They manifest in how your child’s body reacts to these anxious thoughts in a fight or flight way. While every child and family are different, the basic patterns of anxious thinking, physical and behavioural symptoms appear in a similar way.

The crux of it is, we want to alleviate and overcome anxiety. It’s not only traumatic for the child, it is for the parent/s and can be for the whole family. It’s like a domino effect that impacts people along a chain, as the family group tries to handle the distress. If we don’t try and overcome anxiety, it can end up having greater effects on children and their families as they get older.

How do we tackle anxiety and stop it becoming all-encompassing or a problem in the future?
• By acknowledging this emotion and working to break the thought pattern and/or learning to manage thoughts.
• By offering lots and lots of reassurance and showing our little ones that it’s ok to feel this way, but it doesn’t have to be like this!
• By facing fears and becoming ‘brave’, we teach our children confidence, resilience and to be problem solvers, which is an incredible achievement.

My youngest daughter, Emily, suffers every now and again, but it is what I would term a normal level (wobbles), as some anxiety is developmentally appropriate. One night my husband and I went to walk out the door having said goodnight to the girls, leaving them in the capable hands of our trusted and familiar babysitter. Emily became unsettled and clung to me for dear life. The most wonderful thing happened, Molly stepped in, put her arms around Emily, urged her to come and sit next to her to listen to the stories and reassured Emily that mummy is coming back in a little while and that she knows Emily loves this particular story. I felt so overwhelmed with joy, and so proud of Molly, as to what she has faced and overcome, while I’m mindful of what she still struggles with. With early intervention, we have prevented Molly’s anxiety from developing into separation anxiety disorder and potentially manifesting into other issues.

What is separation anxiety?
Anxiety is provoked in a young child by separation, or the threat of separation, from the child’s mother, father, or primary carer. Separation anxiety is often a normal stage of childhood development from approximately eight months (sometimes younger, as was our case for little Molly) to five years, sometimes older. It can reappear at times of change and stress.

Separation anxiety disorder: children with separation anxiety disorder feel constantly worried or fearful about separation. You may be dealing with a child who is constantly refusing to be separated from you, displaying panicked reactions and complaining of physical symptoms that can’t be soothed.

How do I know if my child has anxiety issues?
Crying, screaming, shouting, throwing a tantrum and clinging to the main carer are healthy and normal reactions and vary in length and intensity between each child. You can ease your child’s separation anxiety by staying patient and consistent, and by gently but firmly setting limits. With the right support, children can usually overcome separation in time. Each child is different and this needs to be taken into consideration.

If your child has separation anxiety they may:
*Be very clingy.
*Retreat to a corner or hide under furniture.
*Have difficulty settling back to a calm state.
*Be reluctant to go to sleep. When a child closes their eyes, you disappear and this can stimulate nightmares, sometimes they are very scary.
*Wetting or soiling the bed.
*Experience lots of toileting accidents.
*Refuse to go to nursery, pre-school or school, even if your child likes it there usually and enjoys being with their friends.
*Complain of physical sickness such as a headache or stomach-ache just before/at the time of separation (this was a struggle for us).
*Fear something will happen to a loved one.
*Worry that they may be permanently separated from you.
*Have little appetite or pick at and complain about food.

If your child’s separation anxiety seems to appear overnight, there is the possibility it could stem from a traumatic experience and is not separation anxiety. The symptoms may appear the same, but are treated differently.

According to the website www.mentalhealth.org.uk, anxiety disorders are estimated to affect 3.3% of children and young adults in the UK. Other websites indicate this percentage to be higher.

To stop anxiety manifesting, it is important we face and overcome it together.

How does the book help?
My Tiny Book offers a step-by-step approach in learning to face fears over time by:
1. Addressing psychological need by offering an alternative solution of support.
2. Bridging the gap between parent/carer and child, when communication or comprehension is not fully developed for younger children.
3. Reassuring your child there is no threat in the situation.
4. Being able to personalise your very own book, there is a creative, bespoke approach to facing fears. The action of ‘doing’ is very soothing and reassuring and your book becomes something of a ‘brag book’.
5. Reinforcing your strong relationship with your child, making them feel as you tackle their anxiety in a non-direct manner.

What can I do as a parent or carer to help an anxious child?
Think about your routine and when it would be best for you to introduce the book. If your child is particularly anxious at the mere mention of nursery then bed time is not a good time, instead over breakfast is a popular choice. If you are working with a psychologist or occupational therapist, you might be following a programme of progressive muscle relaxation. All parents can access this information from the Internet or using books to help your child relax if they find it difficult to settle at night. Unfortunately, a difficult night settling to sleep, or fractured sleep patterns, in return can cause your child to be unsettled the next day enhancing separation anxiety. Promote wellbeing and relaxation. Stick to the same routine every day and night. Be kind to yourself and be guided by your little one’s responses over time.

What is the Tiny Steps approach?
1. Leave the book around in view, always.
2. Have photos, scissors and sticky tape ready to create your book.
3. Take the book out with you, don’t just leave it in the same place at home.

Read each morning, allowing time for pause, and encourage your child to respond and feedback on the illustrations. The pictures are very detailed to reflect the true environment, so use these to point specific things out to provoke a reaction. Can your child guess which child they might be in the book for example? Do they have those toys in their nursery?

After a few times of reading the book, you might feel ready to start asking questions. Here are some suggestions that worked for us:
1) What is it about this situation that is making you upset?
You can create a plan of alternative solutions to help your child transition.
2) What do you think will happen?
3) What is worrying or frightening you?
Please note: Timing and how you ask are important considerations.

This extract from the Parents Guide to Childhood Anxiety & Separation Anxiety is available for reprint and use online in its entirety or in sections. We only ask that you please attribute it to Stacey Turner, author of I’m Going To Nursery and ideally link to www.itsoktosay.org.uk.

Stacey Turner is available for interview, editorial commissions and comment. She has written many articles for the press as part of her reach for her mental health charity, It’s OK To Say.