Handling Separation Anxiety
Separation Anxiety appears throughout our lives and tends to come and go with new and different situations and changes. Children tend to experience “Separation Anxiety” starting from infancy and can continue throughout the elementary years. It tends to become less of a concern by the age of six. If children are experiencing separation anxiety for prolonged periods of time and throughout their elementary years, they may be suffering from “Separation Anxiety Disorder”.
Let’s first get a better understanding of what separation anxiety in children is, from a quote in an article from Anxiety Canada:
“In the preschool and early childhood years, separation anxiety presents with more physical and observable signs such as complaints about stomachache or general ailments, as well as crying, clinging, refusal to part, and sometimes full-blown tantrums. Furthermore, these signs are often more common on Sunday nights and Monday mornings with the anticipation of a return to school, as well as following vacations and other extended periods of time off from school.” (Anxiety Canada, 2019).
Separation anxiety in a child can be seen at all different ages of their life, especially during the developmental stages of their brain when they are beginning to understand their surroundings and their home.
If you are a parent of a child who is suffering from separation anxiety, this means your child is finally understanding their attachment to you as their parent, and don't want you to leave. This can also be seen as your child coming off as "clingy" towards you and following your every move. This will likely bring a stir of emotions and you may feel guilty if your child is crying and begging you not to leave them. It is important to remain calm and be confident! As hard as it may be to leave your child who is screaming and crying for you, it is important to have confidence that the caregiver can handle the situation. It is crucial to remember, that if your own emotions are heightened, it is most likely that your child's emotions will be too. This is due to the fact that children tend to mimic their parent’s behaviour; therefore having a calm presence and tone when saying goodbye could help ease their anxiety. Remember, by the time you get to your car, your child is likely to have calmed down and be playing with other toys, or other children.
Tips and Tricks for Handling Separation Anxiety
Tip #1: Practice Separation
To help ease your little one’s anxiety around being separated, you can practice separation itself. If you have a friend or a caregiver who is willing to help you out during this process, you can drop off your child for a couple hours with them and see how they react to the environment. The more you put separation into practice, the easier the first day drop-off and future drop-offs will be.
Tip #2: Goodbye Routine
It is necessary to have a set in place goodbye routine with your child. It should be short and sweet so that your child is aware that you are leaving them and will be back for them. Trying to avoid saying goodbye to your child in hopes they will simply forget and not be afraid, will often backfire on parents. When a parent tries to skip the goodbye with their child, the child may feel a sense of abandonment and it can increase their anxiety about being in childcare. Keeping the goodbye simple and sweet. Not shedding any tears can help make your child feel more at ease and comfortable.
Tip #3: Stick to a Constant Pick-up Routine
As important as it is to have a drop-off routine, it is just as important to have a pick-up routine. If you promised your child a certain time you will be there for them, it is crucial to stick to it. This will help build your child’s trust and confidence in you, and ability to stay at their childcare throughout the day.
Tip #4: Have a Plan
The plan should begin before your child enters childcare and you need to leave them with an educator. Here is where you can have a conversation (depending on the age of the child) of what they are going to be doing, what it means and so on. You can discuss what their day may look like or the plan of the day, if the educator has shared it with you. This may give your child a sense of ease and excitement for the day. Helping children pick their outfits the night before and their meals, will help ease both your own, and their morning anxiety & jitters as well. Set a plan and keep it in place!
Tip #5: Make a Mom Memento
Providing your child with something of yours or a photograph/note, can help your child feel calm. Items can be as simple as a scarf or a hankie that smells like your favourite perfume. Even a bracelet your child has seen you wear to help feel close to you, even though you are not there in that moment works wonders for them.
Tip #6: For Caregivers/Educators
It is helpful to try and not to mention the child’s mother or father, but do answer any question the child may have in a simple and straightforward way. Consider saying “mommy and daddy are going to be back really soon! Let’s play with some toys!” Having a family photo wall or photo album is also a good idea to incorporate. Have photos of the child with their families so that when they ask for them you can guide them towards the photo wall or album.
What We Know About Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety can be spiked in children who are tired, restless, hungry and grumpy. This is why it is important to pay close attention to the little signs your children are trying to convey about sleep, eating, etc. Also extremely important no matter the age of the child, is communication with explanations of what happened, and what to expect with do wonders.
Length of Separation Anxiety
The length of separation anxiety depends on the child and will differ immensely from child to child. The way parents react to the early stages of separation anxiety from the start will also play a factor in how long their child potentially suffers from separation anxiety. This can typically begin from infant years and continue until elementary school years.
When Separation Anxiety Occurs
As previously mentioned, separation anxiety is common to develop after children gain an understanding of object permanence and learn what it means when their parents are leaving them. It is important to keep the transitions short and stick to a set routine to help children become comfortable with what is happening.
In Toddler years, separation anxiety varies from child to child, but once children become more aware of the separations between parents by developing independence, their behaviours may be loud, tearful and difficult to stop. The toddler age is bound to bring more difficulties to your family with behavioural changes, learning how to communicate and starting childcare. It is critical that you pay attention to the little signs from your child and stay on top of their sleeping and eating schedule.
Most children by the age of preschool (ages four to six), understand the effects of separation anxiety and are more “okay” with what is going on. However, this is not always the case:
It is important to be consistent with your routine daily and not to cave into your child’s plea as this can further prolong the separation anxiety.