“Nooooo! I Don’t Want You To Go!” Does that sound familiar? Well, here are some tips for you.
Separation anxiety is the fear of being away from the primary caregiver, fearing that they will not return or that they may be harmed, and it can occur at any age throughout the years of childhood and adolescence. Children typically show this anxiety through crying, screaming, clinging to the primary caregiver and refusing to engage with others.
Separation anxiety most often manifests for two reasons. The first is developmental. Normal separation anxiety usually begins around 7-8 months of age and subsides by 2 years of age. Children in this age group are forming trust in their parents, others, themselves and the world. They are fearful of the unknown and uncertainty. Experiencing other people and spaces as safe, helps to build this trust. The second reason children and teens develop separation anxiety is in response to a transition, change or trauma such as starting school, the birth of a sibling, a move, a divorce, a medical issue, a death or other such life event. A child’s temperament, their coping skills, the attachment between the child and their primary caregivers, and the parents’ response, all impact how quickly and successfully separation anxiety resolves. So how can you help?
Develop a routine. Have a special good-bye ritual, whether it is cuddle time, a special handshake or a secret word. Children respond to structure, routine and predictability, it decreases uncertainty, provides a sense of comfort and helps them know what to expect.
Explain what is going to happen. Tell your child when you are going to leave, where you are going, who is going to be in charge and when you will return. You might be tempted to sneak away and this might get you out the door without a tantrum but lack of knowledge will actually increase your child’s anxiety and can lead to more intensive responses in the future.
Provide exposure to new places and people. Your child will be less anxious if they feel comfortable with where and with whom they are going to be left. So if your child is going to start school, take them to the school before the first day you will leave them. Walk around, see the classroom, play on the swings and meet the teacher.
Use a transition object. Make sure your child has their favorite toy or give them something to remind them of you, such as mommy’s favorite scarf, to keep safe until your return. This provides comfort and security and may also help to distract them from your leaving.
Remain positive. Children are intuitive, so if they sense you are anxious about leaving them, they will believe that they should be anxious too. So smile, give them a hug and tell them how much fun they are going to have while you are gone.
Don’t linger. Say good-bye once and then leave. Delaying the transition will only reinforce the behavior and your child will learn that by crying and screaming they will be able to prevent or delay you from leaving the next time.
Slowly build success. Start small so your child experiences a positive outcome and feels more secure in managing their anxiety in the future. If you are trying out a new sitter, leave your child for 30 minutes, then an hour and so on.
Most children adjust and cope and separation anxiety subsides. Yet for some children, it continues and can become a significant issue. Excessive and severe symptoms may include refusing to do anything separately, crying nonstop during the separation, appearing fearful in situations and towards people who previously did not trigger fear, nightmares and physical complaints. If your child begins to show these symptoms, seeking help may be warranted. Consulting with a counselor who specializes in children can help distinguish normal separation anxiety and can provide strategies to help alleviate any excessive anxiety, so that it does not continue to negatively impact your child and your family.