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Separation anxiety is common at different turning points in a child’s life. Try preempting it with yoga to help them cope and transition to the next phase with ease.
Tears streaming, mouth wailing, face reddening in fear as the class doors open for the first day of nursery school. Sound familiar? For some parents, such behavior aptly describes this rite of passage for their little ones. Separation anxiety is common at different turning points in a child’s life, and preempting it is important in order to help them cope and transition to the next phase with ease, says Dr. Shefali Tsabary, Ph.D., an international speaker, clinical psychologist, and author of the award-winning book, The Conscious Parent (Namaste Publishing, 2010).
The Roots of Separation Anxiety in Children
Most common in infants and small children, this normal stage of development typically strikes children between 18 and 24 months and can set the stage for recurring separation anxiety later—depending on the coping skills and temperament of the child and parents, says Dr. Tsabary.
While most kids experience some form of this mind-state, Dr. Tsabary believes the quality and levels of anxiety depend on how family members handle anxiety. “If the child’s temperament is sensitive and fragile to start with, chances are they will be more prone to anxiety and will need extra guidance and support to manage it,” she says. “If the parents are anxious themselves, it’s likely that they will be unable to be present in the face of their children’s meltdowns and teach them proper coping skills. It all boils down to how the parent handles anxiety within themselves, which then gets projected onto the child.”
The Signs of Separation Anxiety in Kids
To identify separation anxiety in your youngster, Dr. Tsabary advises looking out for dependency, fear in social situations, fear of new challenges, withdrawal, and tearfulness. “Sometimes, when there are other issues at hand as well, the anxiety, if left unattended, can turn into some sort of acting out or anger,” she says.
When a child is simply unable to function and shift his ability to respond to his life situation no matter what the parent does, it’s time to seek professional help, Dr. Tsabary says. “Parents should not be ashamed or embarrassed to do so.”
To best help your kid through transitions like starting school or changing schools, Dr. Tsabary suggests parents start role playing the school situation a few months prior to the actual event. “They should play pretend school—how they will actually drop off the child and what they will be feeling in between. The child should play the parent and vice versa,” she says. “Through the repetition of role playing, the child will develop a certain level of mastery within themselves, giving them the confidence that they will be able to cope with the actual moment of separation. The more the parent believes in the child’s innate abilities to emotionally handle the situation, the more the child will absorb this confidence. If the parent is ambivalent about the child’s innate resilience—a mirror of their own, of course—then the child will pick up on this and act from this place of uncertainty and lack.”
Easing Separation Anxiety in Kids with Yoga
Yoga can be a very grounding practice for anxiety of any kind, says Susan Verde, bestselling children’s book author and yoga and mindfulness instructor. “You can become so caught up in your emotions, experience, and fear,” she says. “Yoga and mindfulness practices help you learn to recognize what you’re feeling and create a distance between you and your emotions. It’s very hard to worry about other things [while in yoga poses].”
If you already incorporate yoga into your life and your child’s, it won’t feel foreign to you or your kids in a moment of separation anxiety. If you know you’re going to be entering a situation with potential for this kind of issue, try taking your child through this simple sequence beforehand.
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4 Yoga Poses for Separation Anxiety
Anxiety can look like many things in the body—especially in a child. Often, there’s a shortness of breath or butterflies in the stomach and the fear or stress felt can overtake their mind, disrupting a sense of stability. Turning kids upside down like in Down Dog can help shift their perspective—and the way their body feels and functions. This pose is not only fun but grounding, with both hands and feet touching the floor, providing a sense of support and stability. Bringing the head lower than the knees also changes the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain, improving brain function, which is often interrupted by anxiety. It’s also a wonderful place to practice deep, slow breaths, which calm the nervous system.
Come to hands and knees on the floor with spread fingers. Push your palms into the ground while lifting your hips (or “tail”) into the air and straightening your legs. Let your head hang and gaze between your knees. Feet don’t have to be flat on the floor but should be about hip-distance apart with heels comfortably aiming for the ground. From here wag your tail and pedal your feet, and be sure to take at least 4 long slow deep breaths in through the nose.
Practicing Tree Pose in moments without anxiety can help create confidence and balance that will translate to more anxious moments. The ability to be still and find a focal point can become a tool when life feels rocky and unfocused. Getting an anxious child into Tree Pose will help to shift her focus from stress to calm and stillness. Tree feels like strength in the body and mind and this reminder can help kids approach their lives or uncomfortable situations with the same qualities and abilities.
Stand tall with feet hip-distance apart. Slowly lift one foot up placing it either on the ankle or thigh of the standing leg (never the knee). Bring your hands to your heart and find something that isn’t moving to look at. This is called your drishti. When you feel still and balanced try bringing your hands to the sky like branches of a strong sturdy tree.
Mountain Pose lets a child experience the feeling of stillness in the body—without orders to stop moving or shame for their behavior.
Stand with your feet hip-distance apart. Roll your shoulders back and down, palms facing forward. Imagine the top of your head reaching to the sky. Feel your entire foot on each side connecting to the ground like the strong base of your mountain. Close your eyes and imagine you are strong and sturdy. Animals may climb on you, the wind may blow, but you are unmoving except for your breath in and out slowly through your nose. You are a strong and beautiful mountain.
Practicing simple breathing exercises as a family gives kids a tool they can use in any anxious situation. Belly breathing not only physiologically slows them down and calms the nervous system, but it gives kids something to focus on so they can let other things go, Verde says. “It’s empowering for kids to know they have this tool and don’t have to call mom or get upset,” Verde says. “No one stays in a heightened state of anxiety all the time, but when experience it, we’d like it to pass with ease and with some acknowledgement and sense of being in control.”
Take 10 slow, deep breaths, breathing all the way down into the belly. Put your hands on your belly and notice the rise and fall. Notice what you are thinking. Don’t tell yourself “I should” or “I shouldn’t have these thoughts.” They are normal and your brain is meant to have thoughts. Watch them like they are bubbles and then imagine them popping and those worries and thoughts disappear. Feel your hands going up and down with your breath and when you have a thought let it pop and go back to your breathing and its rise and fall.
ABOUT OUR WRITER
Erika Prafder is a veteran writer and product reviewer for The New York Post and the author of a book on entrepreneurship. A long-time yoga enthusiast and Hatha yoga teacher, she edits KidsYogaDaily.com, a news source for young yogis. The working mother of three resides in a beach community in Long Island, New York.