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What To Do When Your Child Has Separation Anxiety

Every child experiences anxiety at some point, but what if your child has separation anxiety? Here's how to help!
Anxious Young Girl
Updated: December 1, 2022

Separation anxiety is something almost every child experiences and it can crop up at various times of life. Early childhood is most frequent, but sometimes older kids experience it too when they face their first sleepover, overnight camp or even as they head to college. Here are some tips and coping ideas for kids and parents of all ages to help.

Anxious child holding stuffed bunny

Photo credit: Heather Katsoulis

Gayani DeSilva, M.D. Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist and author of A Psychiatrist's Guide: Helping Parents Reach Their Depressed Tween says that, "Separation anxiety is a completely normal expression of a child's reaction to physical separation from a parent or caregiver. It can seem to appear overnight and at different times throughout childhood. It may last a few days, or several weeks. If not addressed, then it can escalate to more anxiety and for many months."

She says that the basis of understanding separation anxiety is to understand the process of attachment, and the stages of child development that pertain to attachment and individuation. "As the child progresses through maturing in their ability to attach and remain an individual, moments of anxiety arise and this is normal. It's the anxiety that arises when change occurs," Dr. DeSilva says.

Anxious Young Blond Girl

Photo credit: Andy via Flickr

Dr. DeSilva recommends that parents acknowledge that anxiety is normal and staying calm as an adult is crucial. She says, "Instead of trying to get your child to stop feeling anxious, validate and share in their feelings. You can say, 'I know you don't want me to go. I don't want to go either and I will miss you. But I will be back and I can hardly wait to hug you after I get back from work.'" She recommends lots of hugs and smiles, but do not cling to your child or show hesitation. "Be consistent and reliable. Tell your child you will be back and when--not in terms of time but in terms of activity. 'I will see you before dinner. Have a good day!' Make every effort to follow through with your promise so that they develop trust in you."

Dr. Jennifer Guttman is a clinical psychologist and behaviorist with over 20 years of experience in the mental health field and recommends the following six tips for parents and kids:

  1. In the same way that teachers talk about Just Right books; there's Just Right notice, when it comes to time for separation. You don't want to give a child too much notice so they worry for too long, and you also don't want a child to feel ambushed by your leaving. Fifteen minutes (which feels long to a child) is enough lead time to tell a child that you will be separating for a period of time.
  2. Always let a child know when you will be returning and be on time.
  3. Practice separation for short periods at first, move onto longer separations as they master the shorter separations.
  4. Schedule separations during times when a child is the least fragile, meaning when they are not tired or hungry. A well-rested and well-fed child will cope with anxiety much more effectively.
  5. Develop a ritual around saying goodbye. Make sure the ritual is short and consistent. Whatever you do, don't stall.
  6. Keep something familiar with the child if they are leaving their home environment during the separation. Suggest that they bring a stuffed animal or a toy with them.

Dr. Guttman's 4 Ways to Cope:

  1. Educate yourself about separation anxiety so that you feel confidence in your ability to manage difficult situations.
  2. Anticipate separation difficulty so you don't feel stressed or ambushed if it happens, which will only increase your anxiety.
  3. Use strategies that have worked to help you cope with your own anxiety, because your ability to remain calm will help your child learn to stay calm.
  4. Self-care strategies always help parents cope: try to exercise, try to sleep, eat well, try guided meditation, and most of all keep your sense of humor!

Dr. DeSilva says if separation anxiety creates school avoidance or prolonged distress, "Discuss it with the child at a different time. For instance, in the evening when your child is happy and calm, cuddle and discuss the moment of separation. Do not rehash the past difficulties, except to generally say that it seems to be a difficult moment. Discuss future moments of separation and what might make it easier." She recommends talking about feelings, ask about your child's feelings and thoughts. Give a lot of reassurance and reminders that you will always return. Consistency in what parents say and do helps children handle and resolve moments of anxiety.

Featured photo credit: Prabakaran Thirumalai

Laura Richards

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