Helping Children Cope with Separation Anxiety
Separation Anxiety occurs, particularly in children, during times of stress or change. It is characterized by symptoms of insecurity and anxiety when a child must separate from a particular caregiver. Symptoms can intensify well after the initial point of separation and can become very disruptive for both child and parent. Symptoms might manifest as sleep disturbances, tantrums, withdrawal, or other behaviors otherwise atypical of the child.
Having worked in the childcare industry myself, I had seen this difficult and emotional scenario play out firsthand. I had watched many a mama linger tearfully in the doorway, wringing her hands together in certain agony, while her child struggled dramatically over the separation, causing a great internal debate between if it would be better to just quit her job and stay home full time or if it was just time to give her baby bird a big shove out of the nest.
Every child and every family dynamic is different, but here are some simple ways to help a child cope with feelings of separation anxiety:
Sometimes when struggling with anxiety, we only need to be heard. Children are no different in this regard. They need to have mirrored back to them that their emotions are normal and important, but also passing. Empathizing with our children instead of trying to convince them everything is okay also removes the potential for argument and power struggle, which is a cycle that only prolongs feelings of anxiety. Instead of saying, “It’s okay,” try making simple observations about what your child may be feeling. Sometimes just giving them the vocabulary to express their feelings is enough to quell their fears. “I understand. I know it feels sad. It’s a lot of new things to take in. Making new friends can be scary.”
The quicker you make the separation, the better. If you hang around, waiting for your child to get used to the idea of your leaving, then it’s likely you’ll never leave. Children respond more to our energy, body language, and nonverbal cues, than any words we could ever muster. If your desire is to convey confidence and trust in where you are leaving your child, then display just that. Give a big, deliberate hug, turn around and leave, and do not look back. It should be said that for a brand new environment and depending on the age of your child, a phase in process may be necessary for your child to gain an initial orientation. But if you’ve been acquainted with this situation already and your separation seems to be getting more and more drawn out by your child’s anxiety, it may be time to practice making your separation short and sweet.
Connecting to New People
Once you learn some names of your child’s peers and teachers or other people in their environment, start talking about them a lot at home. Not just in the context of the new environment, but in terms of who they are. “Do you think Mary Ann likes riding bicycles, too?” “What do you think Ms. Amber’s favorite color is?” Thinking of new friends this way helps familiarize them, bring them into the fold of trust, and helps your child accept and take ownership of this group as his or her “people.” Planning a play date with new friends while you can still be present is another great way to build your child’s confidence in being with others while separate from you. The more experiences you can give your child will increase their adaptability and flexibility for new situations.
Sometimes a transitional object such as a favorite stuffed animal or toy can be helpful for a child to retain a since of security after separation. Young children are actively building scaffolding for how the entire world works and it can be disorienting when things change suddenly. Having an object that stays with them after having to separate from their caregiver can help establish a consistent feeling of safety. It is likely this special object will only be needed in this way for a short time, overall, as your child gains new skills and abilities to cope with change.
As with anything your child may be struggling with, it is important for the caregiver to maintain an attunement to what to is working and what is not for your individual situation and adapt from there.
McClure, B. (2020). Helping Children Cope with Separation Anxiety. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 1, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/helping-children-cope-with-separation-anxiety/