Separation Anxiety: How to Help and Support Your Child

"Try to prise a limpet away from its rock and it will cling all the harder"

Jeremy Holmes & John Bowlby

 

It may feel like an unusual time to post about separation anxiety. In fact, for those of you who have been with your children 24/7 for more time than you care to remember you may be thinking more about separation excitement! (this isn’t something to feel guilty about – we all need some time to ourselves).

Father playing with daughter dressed up as ballerina

With everything that we have been through this year many peoples’, including little ones, anxiety has gone through the roof. Sadly, there is lots of evidence that children are suffering with their emotional wellbeing, with anxiety being more prevalent.  Babies haven’t had the chance to practice being away from their parents, even with close families. Toddlers have been in and out of pre-school, stopping and starting and learning new rules on an almost daily basis. Normal settling sessions no longer exist, with parents having to wait by the front door, trying to prise their children away from them. 

It’s been difficult for everyone and, I suspect, we are likely to see an increase in separation anxiety given how much time children have spent with their families returning to nursery, pre-school and school over the forthcoming months

In this post I will talk about the development separation anxiety, highlighting how it’s a normal developmental stage. I will also provide some ideas on how you can support your children to understand and cope with it.

Mother and child looking at a book

What is separation anxiety?

Most children experience separation anxiety. It is common in children between the ages of six months and three years, although often lasts longer.  Not surprisingly, children are more likely to feel wobbly when there are changes, they are tired or ill, or you are stressed and all these can play a part in separation anxiety emerging as they get older. I was an anxious child and clearly remember desperately wanting to leave my first ever sleepover to go home.  Luckily my friend’s mum was very nurturing and helped me draw a picture for her, alleviating my anxiety and helping me manage the night.

Separation anxiety starts to develop when a baby learns about object permanence – the understanding that things exist even when they can’t be seen or heard. When babies start to notice that you were there but then gone this can be very unsettling for them – it takes a while for them to understand that you have not gone forever and will come back.

Mother comforting small boy

Is separation anxiety healthy?

Although it’s not something any of us want to witness, children expressing anxiety at being apart from you is normally a healthy sign. It shows they have learnt that you are dependable and can help them manage their stress.

Young children have not yet acquired the skills to regulate their own feelings and need an adult to help them do so (have a look at my blog on co-regulation for more information about this). They need your help to feel safer in unfamiliar situations and their separation anxiety is showing you that they feel secure with you and safer by your side. I see it as a cry for help – they don’t have the words to tell you how worried they are so it comes out as loud and tearful protests.

Although toddlers try to be fiercely independent, something which is so frustrating when you are in a hurry (just picturing my youngest insisting on putting his own shoes on and taking 10 minutes when we are trying to leave the house!) they also need to return to you when things become a bit too much.  This is normal - every time they return to you and you help them feel better, they can go back to exploring the world that bit further.

Mother comforting daughter

How can we support children with separation anxiety?

Obviously, we can’t always be there for our children. When we are out of COVID-19 we will need to get back to some sort of normality and this is likely to involve more time away from our children.

There are things we can do at home now which will be helpful for children to learn to manage being away from us, such as:

  • Playing object permanence games with little ones, such as hide-and-seek and peek-a-boo.
  • Widening their social circle, for example regular time with important people. This might include grandparents reading them a story or singing to them over FaceTime. This can help them learn/remember that there are other predictable and trustworthy adults out there – helpful to maintain their relationships.
  • Rehearsing going to nursery or pre-school (such as through role-play or reading books about it). My book Please Stay Here – I Want You Near provides a way to talk to children about separation anxiety and asks specific questions about their own feelings.
  • Talk to your child about what will happen at their childcare setting and let them know you will be back. Let them know that you are not going away because you don’t want to be with them but that you have things to do that you can’t do together. If they are due to go back to an old setting, or even start at a new place it will be helpful if you have videos and/or pictures of the place, including the staff there. Then you can talk through exactly what will happen when they are there.

Grandparents playing with granddaughter

We also need to make sure we take check of our own feelings. I certainly got better over time at coping with my children’s anxiety, which, not surprisingly, had a massive effect on how they managed it. If they can see we are coping and trusting in being away from us they are likely to do the same! There is a lot of evidence that emotions are contagious – physiologically so – and that if we have a calm nervous system our children are much more likely to feel calmer too.

One of the key things with supporting children to manage any feeling is helping them know what it is, and validate it. Adults often dismiss feelings and focus on the behaviour that arises from it, for example saying “don’t be silly” or “you don’t need to cry”. It’s OK if you’ve done this – many of us do without thinking about the message we are giving.

When we do so we are telling children that it’s not OK to be worried or sad, when it’s perfectly understandable that they are feeling this way. Instead, we need to help them name it and find ways to cope with it.  Maybe try “I can see that you’re worried about leaving me, I understand”. “I know it’s hard for you, Claire is going to help you feel better when I am not there”.  As Dan Siegel, neuroscientist says “Name it to Tame it”.

Father cuddling happy son on sofa.

When you do leave your child, make sure you show them that you trust the person you are leaving them with. And don’t just sneak off, however tempting it is!

If you are interested in reading more about helping children with separation anxiety have a look at my free resource on www.parentingthroughstories.com. I would also recommend the Psychologists Child book (e-Book: Gently Supporting Successful Separations from Parents | Psychologist's Child (thepsychologistschild.com)

Wishing you well for all forthcoming transitions with more separation enjoyment rather than separation anxiety!

 

Want to keep learning?  Find out more about the author, Dr Sarah Mundy.


Mental Health and Wellbeing

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