Attendance and separation anxiety

I need you by my side (‘cause nobody’s gonna love me the way that you do)

Unexplained nausea, headaches, crying, clinging, refusing to go to school or get out of the car on arrival – and that’s just the teachers having problems! But some teenagers also struggle to get to school, or rather, they struggle with parents/carers so they can stay at home, and sometimes that’s down to separation anxiety. 

Babies aged 14 to 18 months are in the peak period of normal separation anxiety when they are exploring more but don’t like getting too far away from their attachment figures, so anxiety performs a useful safety function, preventing them from wandering off too easily. Usually it gradually diminishes in early childhood as the child learns they are safe even when their special person isn’t there and might take a while to come back.

Anxiety around separation can re-emerge when new threats to safety become apparent, and that might show up as refusing to go to school.

Occasionally young people are genuinely unable to explain why they don’t want to go to school. It’s common for psychological distress to be expressed as digestive problems and headaches and not be recognized as anxiety-based (but a GP visit may be helpful to check for organic problems).

Some may attend school with less obvious difficulty but have persistent worries about the safety of family members during the day, and send frequent messages or make reassurance calls to check all is well. Sleepovers and school camps can bring on intense homesickness, or are avoided altogether. A teenager who wants to sleep with their parent/carer may be seeking closeness as a protection from nightmares or worries about intruders.

Older children and teens can get very upset (as can their parents/carers) when the pressure is on to get to school, with instances of panic, aggression and threats of self-harm.

Losing your cool in morning arguments makes for a bad start to the day for everyone as frustration and yelling take over. It’s important to understand that people of all ages with anxiety need to face their fears with assistance and support, gradually, and can fiercely resist high-pressure tactics that don’t end up helping. Anxiety is the enemy, not the child.

Behaviour that looks like separation anxiety can have other causes; for example: other varieties of anxiety, depression, and fear of bad things that are anticipated at school, real or imagined. Contact the school to see if any problems relating to schoolwork or peer/teacher relationships are happening.

Think about any actual changes in your child’s world that might be impacting on their sense of safety; for example, recent or anticipated loss. 

Adults can have separation anxiety too, even without a history of separation problems. Lifetime rates average almost 5% of adults. So you might consider whether you, as the adult, can be overprotective by allowing or requiring your child to be too dependent on you. Perhaps you are sending subtle messages to your child that it’s distressing for you when they leave.

In summary, look for medical explanations of physical symptoms, consider recent changes, and seek counselling support.

Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta has a free family clinic service that can help with separation anxiety and other problems. Contact the school counsellor for more information.
Separation anxiety in children 

Martin Graham
School Counsellor