With school starting again after the holidays, your child might be exhibiting some signs of separation anxiety. This may have been an issue that you previously worked through at the start of the year resurfacing, or it unexpectedly came with no warning.
There are periods in children’s lives where they become anxious to be separated from their caregivers. Infants between 8 and 14 months normatively go through a stage of acute anxiety when separated form their primary caregivers. Toddlers become easily stressed out by periods of separation with parents as well. These are normal phases of a child’s development. In most cases this is something that will ease with time. A bit of work on the part of the parent or caregiver, and majority of children can tolerate some separation from moms and dads easier and for more extended periods, by the time they reach school age. However, when children after age of six manifest any of the anxiety symptoms regularly over the span of four weeks or longer, it may signal signs of anxiety.
Some warning signs might be:
- Clinging/crying when parent attempts to leave or when in new place
- Fears that something bad may happen to the parent or the child while they are separated
- School refusal
- Complaints of physical illness in order to stay home
- Stomach aches, appetite changes, and digestive problems
- Nightmares, restless sleep and refusal to sleep alone
Thankfully, there are some ways in which parents can help combat this separation anxiety. Depending on your child’s age, some of these may be more appropriate than others.
Tips to ease separation anxiety:
- Read books together about separation anxiety. Reading books with your child is a wonderful bonding experience, and it may be a good way for your child to start talking with you about their fears and worries. Some books you might like to read together are:
- The Kissing Hand: Audrey Penn
- Llama Llama Misses Mama: Anna Dewdney
- I Love You All Day Long: Francesca Rusackas & Priscilla Burris
- Create a “goodbye” routine. Children love to have special things the two of you share, and a goodbye routine can be a great solution to separation anxiety. This can be something like a special handshake, high five, or hug- even a combination of the three is fantastic! A small side-note for parents: make sure that this “goodbye” routine is something that you can easily remember so you do not forget it!
- Keep calm during goodbyes. Many times, children will become more upset when their parent is upset leaving them at school or daycare. When you leave your child, wave goodbye and then walk out the door. Do not linger in the doorway. It is completely natural for you to be upset leaving your child! However, it is not helpful for your child to see you upset. As hard as it might be, hold those tears until you are on your own so your child knows that it is safe for them to stay at school until you come pick them up. You may release those tears once you are out of sight of your child. This is easier said than done, but it is the best thing you could do for your child.
- Don’t give in! Your child will be crying and asking repeatedly for you to stay with them, and as a parent it can be difficult to not want to just allow your child to have what they want. The issue will just persist if you continue to give in to their wish for you to take them home or stay with them. Calmly but firmly tell your child that they need to stay at school and that you will be back to pick them up soon. Provide them with a few verbal reminders of things that they enjoy, such as playing with friends or sitting in circle time. This will be a good way for them to be distracted from the fear that they are experiencing and they can go participate in the activity and stop focusing on their anxiety.
These tips, when employed consistently, will ensure that your child will not persist with their anxious feelings about being without you. Patience and persistence will show positive results. If your child is exhibiting these symptoms to the point where it is interfering with their daily life, please seek professional help. This could be a sign that your child is developing Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD), which is more serious than just separation anxiety.
Signs of Possible Separation Anxiety Disorder:
- Inappropriate clinginess or tantrums for their age
- Consistent complaints of being sick
- Withdrawal from friends or things they enjoy doing
- Weeks of school refusal
- Intensely preoccupied with fear and guilt
- Excessive fear of leaving the house
- Excessive worry that something terrible will happen to parents/caregivers
If your child is exhibiting any of the above symptoms beyond approximately 3 weeks, it is time to seek help from a therapist. This does not mean that you have failed as a parent! Sometimes children struggle with emotions that are more complex than the two of you can work through together. A therapist can come in as an unbiased third party and help guide you towards tools to success. If you feel that the separation anxiety is causing difficulties not only for your child, but your entire family or your relationship with your spouse, do not be afraid to ask for either family or marital counseling to help you through this difficult time.
For any parents with children currently struggling with Separation Anxiety Disorder, please see (copy and paste) the following resources for more tips: