Separation Anxiety

Jul 04, 2022
How to support a child with separation anxiety | Mind & Child | Practical parenting course by 2 child pshycologists

In a previous blog, we discussed anxiety and how to determine if your child is experiencing typical versus clinical levels of distress. This week, we are diving specifically into separation anxiety. If this resonates with you, please consider sitting down with your partner or other caregivers and see how you can put these steps into action.

For some families, summer is a break from the constant battle of your child complaining of aches and pains, crying before school, or refusing to get out of the car. For others, you may have young children that may generally struggle and it is hard to have a date night. We are here to help!

As a reminder, worry is one of our basic emotions and serves a purpose – it helps us stay alert and safe. But, it also can be an icky feeling that you and your child want to avoid. Children who struggle with separation quickly learn that when they stay with their parents they feel better as their worry thoughts decrease. This sets up a cycle in which they are further reinforced for staying close to their parent and have a harder time separating.

IMPORTANT: If your child is struggling, please do not ever sneak out, such as when dropping them off with a babysitter, without notifying them. We know that this makes it easier on you in the moment, but it is actually making your child more nervous. This makes them feel that at any moment you may leave without warning and they won’t know. They become more clingy, fearful, and concerned you will not come back. This is opposite of what we want in the long run!

If you find your child struggling, here are some steps you can take:

1 – Practice separation. I know it is hard, but your child has to learn that they can experience periods of separation. Start by leaving your child with a well-known caregiver for brief periods of time, even if it is only for a few minutes! As your child gets used to separation you can slowly increase the time. This is teaching them that they can be separated and they can trust their parent will return. If you feel this even sounds impossible, have a grandparent or babysitter come over where the plan is only to practice this. Leave, drive around the block, then come back – then slowly increase the amount of time you are gone or do this simple routine a few (two to three) times in a day with at least an hour or two in between.

2 – Develop a quick goodbye ritual. This can be anything from a hug or kiss, or maybe a special handshake, but keep it short and sweet. A routine helps your child know what to expect and allows you to give them that reassurance before you leave.

3- Leave without fanfare. The main idea – don’t stall. Use the goodbye ritual you set up before, tell them you are leaving and that you will be back, and then be ready to walk out of the door. This gives you the opportunity to state to your child that you are leaving (remember, never sneak away!) without you getting stuck with them clinging to your leg while the babysitter tries to pry them off of you.

4 – Follow through on promises. At the beginning, make sure you can come back when you stated. With separation anxiety, kids fear that something bad may happen to their parents when they are away. If you say an earlier time, but then do not arrive, they worry that their fears may be true. If something happens and you end up running late, send a text or call the babysitter to give them an update. The goal is to wean them from needing this, but remember we are taking small steps!

5 – Keep things familiar! For babysitting, this can simply be having them be watched at your house. If they have to go to someone else’s house, let them bring a familiar object. If your child is transitioning to school for the first time, or to a new school, take advantage of every opportunity to get them familiar. Even before school is open, take a drive to see the school, walk around the building, and play on the school playground. If your child’s anxiety is significant, contact your school and ask if there is an additional time when you can bring up your child so they can visit the campus and their classroom without large crowds such as on Meet the Teacher night.

6 – Try not to give in. We know it is so hard when your child is crying, screaming your name, and clinging to your leg.  If you immediately return when they cry, you accidently reinforced the behavior and it will continue. *Note, we are not saying you need to be cold or distant, but simply confident that they will be okay when you are gone for a short period of time.  Remember, you are setting the tone of times when you separate. If this is hard for you (we get it, we have been there), have your partner be the one that says the goodbye or drops off.

Why is this important? We want your child to be confident and secure in their attachment with you that they are able to be away from you for short periods of time. And as much as we love them, it is important for you as an individual to be able to still enjoy life! Being replenished with adult interaction or alone time makes you a better parent – especially if you don’t feel anxious yourself about your child when you are away.

Okay, so what do you do now? Talk with your partner about how you can try these steps. Make small goals! If an entire date night doesn’t seem possible – try just going for coffee, or even picking up a coffee to-go. Have caregivers on the same page so they know what to expect during drop-off procedures. After the quick goodbye, they should be ready with an activity to help distract your child with something fun. Most often, your child may cry for a few minutes and then they move on!

If you as a parent find yourself very anxious to leave your child(ren), this is also normal, especially if you are a new parent. As a friendly reminder, counseling is good. Counseling allows you to learn additional strategies to be a better human and parent!

-Dr. Jordana Mortimer

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