Q: I feel like I am completely at a loss with my five-year-old son. He is the baby in my family and has always been a homebody. He loves his siblings and definitely doesn’t have any problems socializing when he is at home. Also, when I am around, I can see that he is natural and fun with his classmates and friends.
It’s when I leave that we have a problem. When he was younger, he would kick and scream when I dropped him off at school. Now, I see him slowly retreating into himself when it’s time for school or else he tells me he doesn’t feel well enough to attend. He refuses to go to friends’ houses to play and seems to be completely focused on staying home. I thought this kind of behavior would end a long time ago. What is going on with my loving, adorable son?
A: First, I want to say that it is great that you are asking this question. Most parents are uncomfortable addressing social issues with their children because they don’t want to find out that there is something wrong. The good news is – from the way you described your son – there are some relatively simple solutions.
Your son seems to be struggling with anxiety – more specifically – separation anxiety, which has made socializing outside of the home difficult. What is separation anxiety? Most people think that separation anxiety is something our six-month-old infants develop and our toddlers grow out of. Separation anxiety before a child is two years old is completely normal and helps children learn how to master their environment.
However, in reality, separation anxiety can manifest itself at almost any age during childhood, especially during times of stress. Children with separation anxiety worry about separating from their parents during school, work, a quick errand, bedtime, or even when they are in the next room. Separation anxiety can make leaving the house a torturous process for both the parent and the child.
The New York Times’ Health Guide explains that the symptoms of separation anxiety include:
- Excessive distress when separated from the primary caregiver
- Reluctance to go to school or other places because of fear of separation
- Reluctance to go to sleep without the primary caregiver nearby
- Repeated physical complaints
Drs. Andrew Eisen, Charles Schaefer, and David Barlow, in their book, Separation Anxiety in Children and Adolescents, give some tips for helping children overcome their anxiety:
- Relaxation techniques. When children experience anxiety, their whole body tenses – sending messages back to their brain that there is danger around them. The goal of relaxation techniques is to calm the body in order to get the child’s brain to recognize the serenity. Some relaxation techniques include deep breathing, different positions that send blood to the head, and singing songs.
- Self-soothing language. As babies, children learn to self-soothe when they wake at night by sucking their thumbs, humming, or using a pacifier. Likewise, as children get older they can utilize self-soothing language in order to provide themselves with comfort. The most important part of this process is that it is the child who does the soothing themselves. Some sample phrases are, “Mommy always comes back” or “I’ve been alone before. I am safe and I am calm.”
- Gradual separation in small increments of time and space. Depending on the severity of the anxiety, start separating yourself from your child in very slow increments. For instance, if your child can’t even handle when you are in another room with the door closed, sit in the next room with the door open (within sight of your child). After a few days of this, experiment with closing the door for a few moments. Next, work on being downstairs while your child is upstairs. Then, try the backyard while he is inside. Each time you successfully complete a step, discuss with your child the fact that he is safe and you came back.
With time, your homebody will be begging you for sleepovers at his friends’ houses.