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Responding to separation anxiety in children

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What is separation anxiety?

It is very natural for all children to feel some anxiety about being separated from their primary carers. As their parent or carer you may notice them feeling sad when you say goodbye and wanting to cling on to you as if they feared that you are not going to return. This is a completely normal stage of child development and represents the child starting to experience being a separate self as opposed to feeling that they are merged as one with the adult. If we think about this literally, it makes sense why separation can feel so overwhelming. From the child’s perception what was once an experience of oneness with everything and everyone, the world is transformed into an experience of separateness where they start to perceive themselves as single beings in a vast and busy world. Understanding how they feel can help in responding to separation anxiety in children.

Understanding the behavior

Outbursts of temper tantrums and excessive crying or clinginess are all very healthy expressions of the fear of being separate. These sorts of behaviours can begin before the age of twelve months and can regularly re-occur until a child is four, however the frequency and intensity between children ranges enormously. If you are experiencing these stages with your child the most helpful approach is being patient while gently holding firm boundaries or limits.

There are also practical things that you can do that overtime will ease the experience. Developing a consistent way of saying goodbye and sticking to it provides a safe and predictable message that separation is about to happen, something as simple as some affectionate words or a special hug will offer a reassuring reminder. Having a consistent person who looks after your child when you need is also extremely helpful rather than them having to adjust to lots of different people in their time away from you. And taking care of any feelings that come up in you about being apart from your child is also an extremely helpful thing to do rather than your child picking them up and identifying with them.

Separation Anxiety Disorder

Whilst this level of separation anxiety in itself is a normal stage, there is also something else called separation anxiety disorder. This refers to a more extreme expression of anxiety and is a communication from a child that they are extremely frightened and feel unsafe about time away from their carers. Common signs of the disorder include reluctance to go to sleep, refusal to go to school, complaints of sickness or headaches or physically clinging onto you as you work around the house. If your child is displaying this sort of behaviour beyond the age of what is considered normal separation anxiety stage it is worth exploring what may be causing it.

What can cause this?

Specific things that can cause these sorts of upsets in older children include changing schools, break ups with friends, moving house or it can sometimes be due to an over protective parent who may be unaware of their own anxieties.separation anxiety If something comes to light that you think may be the root of why they are expressing separation anxiety find a way of talking to them about it.  Remember that whilst it can feel scary to raise a difficult subject, it is much healthier to name feelings and worries rather than try and hold them all in hoping that they will just disappear. Again the balance of patience and gentle boundaries is useful here, staying empathic with your child whilst reminding them that will survive the changes that are happening.

It is also really helpful to think ahead to the sorts of things that may cause anxiety in your child and prepare the ground for the event. With situations like changing schools visiting the school together, meeting the prospective teachers and ideally some of the children who will also be there are all supportive steps that you can take.

Reassurance

In terms of ongoing maintenance that can help create safety and confidence in your child make sure that your days have some form and structure in them so that they can depend on a certain amount of predictability. Encourage them to take part in activities and do what it takes to help them access these whether it’s accompanying them or taking friends who they trust along with them. When possible offer your child choices about what they do so that they feel some degree of control can be reassuring and empowering. Speaking to teachers at school about what is going on is also supportive and agreeing strategies such as having a safe place to retreat to if things feel too intense.  You could  negotiate that they can make a quick two minute phone call to you every so often from school to help them settle again, which may also help.

Whatever is going on with your child, try as much as possible to avoid blaming yourself. Sometimes parents do everything they possibly can and children still experience the world as frightening and overwhelming and at other times there are good reasons why a parent wasn’t able to offer security at a particular time in a child’s life. For more information on separation anxiety disorder and suggestions of professional treatment please see http://www.helpguide.org/mental/separation_anxiety_causes_prevention_treatment.htm

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About Jenny Smith

About Jenny Smith

Jenny Smith is a freelance writer and facilitator specialising in mental health, well-being and ecotherapy. She writes for National Mind and The Working Parent and facilitates training in the Work that Reconnects and Ecotherapy. She is inspired by nature, gardening, love and non-duality teachings

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