Understanding Separation Anxiety

Separation Anxiety can occur for children aged 6 months to 4 years. At this point, a child is capable of “representational thinking,” which means s/he can picture objects (like you) in his mind after they are gone.  Out of site no longer means out of mind for them.  This can lead to feelings of abandonment when you are not there. It is not clear why some kids pass through this phase with barely a whimper while others become consumed by it.

How common is separation anxiety?

Separation Anxiety affects approximately 4 percent of children. Many children experience some anxiety when their caregiver leaves the room or goes out of sight.  This type of behavior is common from 18 months to about three years of age. Most often, the child can be distracted from these feelings.

When does it become a problem?

If your child is unable to leave you or takes longer than his or her peers to calm down after your departure, your child may be suffering from separation anxiety disorder.

What are the signs of separation anxiety?

Excessive worrying or homesickness while being away from home or you.

Feelings of misery when his or her loved ones are not near.

Refusing to go to school, daycare, camp, or a sleepover because his or her loved ones will not be present.

Worrying or thinking that something bad is going to happen to you.

Separation anxiety disorder not only takes a toll on your child emotionally, mentally, and socially but on you and every member of the family as well.  It is important to get the help your family needs to alleviate the symptoms of separation anxiety in your child.

Strategies to help ease your child’s separation anxiety.

  • Wave bye-bye when you leave. Many parents try to sneak away while their child is engaged in an activity. Not the best idea. Yes, this helps you sneak away before hearing their dreaded cries and demands for you to stay. However, sneaking away can actually make your child’s separation anxiety even more severe.  If she thinks you might disappear at any given moment without notice, she’s not going to let you out of her sight the next time!
  • Help your child look ahead. Prepare her for your departure by talking about it ahead of time. Make sure your child knows where you are going and when you will back.  Talk about your child’s teacher or instructor with enthusiasm! If you haven’t noticed yet, your child really looks up to you for your approval, and if you talk about his teacher or instructor with lots of enthusiasm, he’ll be more inclined to agree.  Another strategy is to help prepare your child by acting it out with his or her toys. This acting out can be done several times to help normalize and prepare for the situation.
  • Try to be positive yourself. Children are so perceptive and can pick up on our own anxiety. It’s common to feel nervous or anxious about leaving our child for the first time. However, dramatic farewells will just validate your child’s feelings. It’s important to try to stay calm and positive, even when he or she is hysterical. Get on his or her level and reassure him or her that you’ll be back soon. To make things a little fun, you can both adopt a silly parting phrase, such as “brb” for be right back or “see ya later, alligator.”
  • Use a transitional object. Leaving your child with a reminder of you may help him or her cope easier. This can be anything from a photograph, something of yours, or even his or her favorite blanket or stuffed animal.  It’s important to keep in mind not to leave anything with your child that you may need, be it keys, wallet, or your favorite sunglasses. Keep in mind, for some kids this security object can instead become a constant reminder of your absence. It may be best to check in with his or her childcare provider to see how it is working.
  • Help your child with their feelings. It will take some time until your child can fully understand his or her emotions and how to identify them. However, you can help by teaching her simple labels for her feelings. For instance, when your child starts to panic or cry, tell her, “I know you are (insert feeling) that I am leaving.  What you’re feeling is called ‘missing.’ When I leave, I have those ‘missing’ feelings too.”  When children begin to learn to identify their feelings, they tend to be able to handle them better.
  • Set up gradual transitions. If you and your spouse have a date night planned, have your caregiver come earlier to help your child become better acquainted while you act as a calming presence. You can use the time to do a few activities altogether too to help your child see that it will be okay.
  • Leave at the same time. See if your childcare provider can take him or her out as you both say your goodbyes. Perhaps, they can walk your child to the classroom, take him or her to the park, or even for a quick stroll. This demonstrates to your child that you are both leaving.
  • Engage them in an activity. It’s usually best when your child is engaged in an activity before you leave. When it is time for you to leave, have a quick departure routine and leave.  Yes, he or she may still cry, however, the activity can serve as a distraction soon after.
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