Parenting

How to Help Children with Separation Anxiety

How to Treat Separation Anxiety Disorder in Children

Introduction

It is quite natural for young children to become anxious when their parents say goodbye to them. Even though this stage can be difficult to deal with, know that separation anxiety is a part of normal child development. Separation anxiety can be relieved by knowing some effective strategies. Although this stage of development fades as children grow older, some children develop separation anxiety disorder, in which they have persistent and intensified anxieties that affect school and other activities. This condition may need professional treatment, but as a parent, there are also numerous ways to help relieve your children's fears and make them feel secure. 

The following are separation anxiety facts and tips for a better transition:

  • Infants - When a child develops object permanence, separation anxiety develops. When babies realize that their parent is out of sight, it may leave them anxious. Separation anxiety tends to peak when they reach 9 months old. It also tends to get worse when you leave them tired, hungry, or feeling under the weather. To get started, try to keep transitions short. 
  • Toddlers - There are toddlers who do not display separation anxiety during infancy, but later show it when they are 15-24 months old. Such separations are usually more challenging, especially when toddlers are sick, tired, or hungry. They can be tearful, loud, and difficult to pacify. However, as toddlers develop more independence, they can become more aware of separations. 
  • Preschoolers - When children reach their third birthday, most of them may already understand how separation works. Try to be consistent at this stage and avoid giving in to your child's requests, especially when you have already made plans. 

How to survive separation anxiety?

  • Goodbye rituals should be quick - As you leave, give triple kisses or provide a toy or a special blanket. Say a short goodbye. 
  • Be consistent - If you are dropping the child and daycare or a sitter's home, try to do at the same time each day with the same ritual. Whenever you can, try to separate to avoid unexpected factors. The heartache will diminish and your child will eventually be able to build confidence and independence by following this routine. 
  • Attention - Give your child full attention when you are separating from him or her. Provide affection and be loving. Despite the child’s antics or cries, say goodbye quickly.
  • Keep your promise - When you stick to your promise, you are building trust and independence in your child.
  • Be specific, child style - The time that you will return should be discussed with your child by providing him or her the specifics. Time should be defined in a way the child can understand it.
  • Practice being apart - On the weekend, take your child to granny’s house. Child care can also be provided by family and friends, and play dates can be scheduled. The ritual of going to school and saying goodbye should be practiced before the child actually starts daycare or preschool. Before you part ways with the child, practice it beforehand. In your absence, give your child a chance to explore and be independent. 

A stable and supportive environment can be created by the following tips:

  • Educate yourself about separation anxiety disorder – It will become easier for you to sympathize with the child if you know what is causing their separation anxiety. It will also help you handle his or her struggles more easily.
  • Listen and respect your child’s feelings - A powerful healing effect can develop when you give a lending or listening ear to your child, who already feels isolated.
  • Talk about the issue - It is healthy for children to share their feelings. Be empathetic toward the child and remind him or her about the time when he or she survived the separation. 
  • Provide a consistent pattern for the day Do not underestimate the importance of predictability in children with separation anxiety. Discuss with your child ahead of time if your family’s schedule is going to change.
  • Set limits - There are rules that should be followed in the household. Let your child understand that these rules need to be followed.
  • Offer choices - You can make your child feel safer and more comfortable if your child is given some elements of control or choice in any given activity or interaction. 
  • Keep calm during separation - Your child is more likely to remain calm if your child also sees you calm.
  • Support your child when he or she takes part in activities - Motivate your child to take part in healthy physical and social activities.
  • Praise the efforts of your child - Give your child positive reinforcement and give praise even for small accomplishments.

Tips for School

  • Address the cause - Address the cause if your child is avoiding school. Initiate a plan, so that your child immediately returns to school. Gradual reinforcement may be needed at first with partial days.
  • Late arrival should be accommodated - If possible, the school should be lenient about late arrivals. This will give your child room to talk and a slower pace of separation. 
  • A safe place should be identified - When your child is stressed, find a place where the child can reduce anxiety. For the appropriate use of a safe place, guidelines should be developed.
  • Let your child have contact with home - A brief phone call at times of stress should be allowed with family members. Separation anxiety can also be reduced in this way. 
  • You can write notes for your child to read - You can leave a note in your child's lunch box or locker to give your child a sense of reassurance. 
  • Provide assistance to your child during interaction with peers - Your child and his or her peers can benefit if help is taken from adults such as a teacher or counselor.
  • Your child's efforts should be rewarded - Every good effort deserves to be praised in school and at home.

In new places

  • Before separation, spend time with your child if you are leaving him or her in a new setting. If your child is left safe in a familiar place with familiar people, then he or she will feel less distressed.
  • When going to a new place, let your child carry something from home that he or she likes. It can be a pillow, blanket, or a stuffed toy. Your child will feel safer this way, and as your child settles in a new place, you can gradually phase them out.
  • If you think that people at the new place can help you, then let them know that your child has separation anxiety. In this way, your child can get consistent support from other people in the new environment.
  • Give your child positive experiences in practicing separations and reunions. The problem could get worse if you avoid separations from your child.

When leaving your child

  • Tell your child about the time when you will be leaving and when you will be back. Things can become worse when you sneak out without saying goodbye to your child. When your child realizes that you are not around, he or she may feel upset, and the next time you leave, you might find it difficult to settle down your child.
  • Before you leave, let your child be engaged in an enjoyable activity.
  • Briefly say goodbye to your child.
  • When you are leaving, keep a happy and relaxed look on your face. Your child might feel that the place is not safe and may get upset when you seem worried or sad. 

At home

  • About your child’s difficulty with separation - Avoid criticizing or being negative about it no matter how frustrated you are.
  • About the fear of separation - Do not make up stories or read books. To foster your child’s self-esteem, make a conscious effort. You can compliment your child by giving lots of positive attention.

Ease Separation Anxiety According to Age

1. Babyhood

Separation anxiety may initially strike when your child is around 6 months old. Your child may know that you are leaving, but they are unsure whether you will return. Your child's anxiety may last for several weeks to a few months. 

  • Start early - Introduce your baby to other caregivers by six months of age. Hopefully, well before preschool, the child can be prepared by separations.
  • Keep your "goodbyes" short - Your child will understand that there is something to be afraid of if your "goodbye" is prolonged. Your child may cry harder and longer if you reappear after you have left. As you walk out of the door, your child can sense your confidence.
  • Avoid sneaking off - Tell your caregiver that right after you leave, redirect your child by giving him his or her favorite toy.

2. Toddlerhood

Sometimes, separation anxiety may peak when your child reaches 12-24 months old. When this happens, a strong sense of attachment is established. By now, they know that their parent will return, but still, they want you around. They give it their best shot since they know that wailing will work.

  • Develop a goodbye ritual - Create a ritual when you leave. This ritual can be anything such as giving a high five or giving two kisses.
  • A small job should be given - Until you come back, give your child some tasks to do, such tidying up their room.
  • Provide an estimated time of arrival - Don’t tell your child that you are returning in terms of the number of hours, but say that you will be back at snack time, and try to stick to it as promised. At some point, your child can predict when you are late.
  • Remind your toddler that you will return - Give an assurance to your child that even if you are going out, you will return back. 

3. Preschool Age

This stage of separation anxiety is the most exhausting one. 

  • It is OK to be nervous - Hug your child and explain that there is nothing wrong with feeling nervous. 
  • Plan a one-on-one with your child - According to experts, when the child is given an additional one-on-one, the child feels more confident and less threatened.
  • Develop a predictable bedtime routine - When your child is going through a tough time, this idea is generally good. A timetable can also be created.
  • Try your best not to give in - Preschool children may experience separation anxiety in numerous ways. The child may insist on sleeping with you or will ask for a pacifier. It is natural that you may ease up on the rules that you have established when you are fed up. But a structured routine is needed for children. Do not alter the routine of the child. Instead, give your child extra hugs and kisses. If you maintain the same routine, the child may feel that nothing is wrong.

Key Takeaways

  • Separation anxiety is a part of normal child development.
  • There are children who do not display separation anxiety during infancy, but later on when they are 15-24 months old.
  • When children reach their third birthday, most of them may already understand how separation works.