BEHAVIOUR

8 Ways to Deal with Separation Anxiety in Parents and Children

Contents

  1. How do you know it's separation anxiety?
  2. What are 3 signs of separation anxiety?
  3. Is separation anxiety a behaviour?
  4. What is parental separation anxiety?
  5. How can I help my child with separation anxiety UK?
  6. How do you fix separation anxiety in children?


Most babies will adapt well to caregivers other than their parents, as long as their needs are being met. 

According to psychologists, this is because of a sense of “object permanence” – the feeling that things and people exist even when they're out of sight. This means that younger children  might not miss their parents when they don’t see them. They just assume they’ll come back at some stage.  👶anxiety kid sad depression

As infants grow older, tearful, tantrum-filled goodbyes become common throughout their earliest years. Around their first birthday, many kids develop child separation anxiety – getting upset when a parent tries to leave them with someone else.  

The causes of separation anxiety are both biological and circumstantial. 

Kids between eight months and three years are still learning that separations from their parents are only temporary. Prior to this understanding, separation can become very unsettling for a child. 

Though rest assured that separation anxiety in kids is a common and very normal part of growing up. 

According to the NHS, in the UK, anxiety disorders are estimated to affect 5-19% of all children and adolescents, and about 2-5% of children younger than 12. The most common anxiety disorder is separation anxiety in children younger than 12.

Other causes of separation anxiety in kids can be triggered by events that bring about change –  a new childcare situation or caregiver, a new sibling, moving to a new place, or tension at home. ☝

Child separation anxiety is challenging for both parents and kids. While children experience emotional overwhelm every time they have to leave you, as parents you're also likely to feel guilty about taking time out for yourself, leaving your child with a caregiver, or going to work. 

Read on to understand exactly what your child is going through when experiencing separation anxiety and the best coping strategies for it. This will help you both overcome it in positive ways. 👊

 

How do you know it's separation anxiety?

 

When your child is unable to emotionally regulate themselves on your departure, they are most likely experiencing separation anxiety. This could be when you leave them at school, or nursery or plan an evening out somewhere.

Separation anxiety in children could also occur when parents are away for short periods of time. When you turn back to your child for a few minutes at the park to talk to your friends for example, or when you leave their room after having tucked them in at bedtime. Children can also experience separation anxiety in these situations because they don’t know how long these separations will last. Their anxiety could lead to them resisting leaving you, throwing temper tantrums or excessively crying. 

If your child has never been cared for by anyone but you, is naturally shy or has other stresses, separation anxiety may be worse for them than it is for other kids. Though don’t panic, with the right support this phase will pass. 💫

Trust your instincts. Maybe you’ve noticed that your child refuses to go to a certain babysitter or shows other signs of tension, such as trouble sleeping or loss of appetite. There could be a problem with the childcare situation or your child might be experiencing bullying

 

What are 3 signs of separation anxiety?

 

  • Crying or clinging in new situations
  • Refusing to sleep without you or another caregiver nearby
  • Beginning to cry at night after not being able to sleep through the night 

These aren’t the only signs of child separation anxiety but common ones experienced by many parents. 

 

Is separation anxiety a behaviour?

 

Separation anxiety in children is a stressful feeling that can trigger certain behaviours, such as:

  • Rapid breathing
  • Throwing tantrum
  • Hysterically crying
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Trouble eating
  • Becoming aggressive 

Sometimes separation anxiety in kids lasts into preschool, primary school, or beyond and can interfere with their daily activities. This behaviour could be a sign of a rare but more serious condition known as Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD).

 

Symptoms of SAD in children: 

 

  • Fear of being lost from their family or of something bad occurring to a family member if he or she is not with the person 
  • Panic symptoms (such as nausea, vomiting, or shortness of breath) or panic attacks before a parent leaves
  • Repeated nightmares about separation from their family
  • Extreme fear of sleeping alone (although this is also common in kids who don't have separation anxiety)
  • Refusing to go to school
  • Fearful and reluctant to be alone
  • Frequent stomach aches, headaches, or other physical complaints
  • Muscle aches or tension
  • Too much worry about the safety of self
  • Too much worry about or when sleeping away from home
  • Being very clingy, even when at home
  • Excessive worry about being lost or kidnapped or going places without a parent

A child must experience such symptoms for at least 4 weeks for the problem to be diagnosed as SAD. The symptoms of SAD can also look like other health problems. Make sure your child sees his or her healthcare provider for an accurate diagnosis. ✊

 

What is parental separation anxiety?

 

Parenting separation anxiety is when parents experience strong and sometimes overwhelming feelings about the potential and real absence of their children. 

“Parental separation anxiety can develop during pregnancy, postnatal or at any point during their offspring’s childhood,” psychotherapist and author Vivien Sable told Counselling Directory. “It could be triggered as a result of birth trauma, perinatal or postnatal anxiety/depression and existing anxiety issues, or it may simply be triggered by the act of becoming a parent.”

Parents usually experience this anxiety when their child begins nursery, starts school or spends time away from the family home. Though they can also experience it when they are away from their infants. This could be a long day at work or even during a short lunch with friends. The anxiety could present itself as low mood, anger, or catastrophic thinking about your child’s wellbeing and the need to be with them immediately at that moment.

You shouldn’t feel embarrassed or ashamed for experiencing such feelings. 

A 2016 study by Pacey UK (the professional association for childcare and early years) in association with Netmums, revealed that out of 1000 mothers, 70% of mums said they worried about the extent they would miss their children. 90% reported feeling anxious about returning to work after having a child, while nearly half of mums admitted being very anxious.

Wondering how to overcome separation anxiety as a parent? 

  • Acknowledge your feelings of anxiety when away from your child, as denying them will only make it worse
  • Talk to other parents who experience similar anxiety and understand what helps them overcome it 
  • Schedule activities that make you happy during your child’s absence, which will direct your energy in a positive direction 
  • In the absence of your child, you can smell an item of their clothing to feel more connected to them 

As much as you want your child to know that you miss them, try and keep your feelings of separation away from your child. You don’t want your parenting separation anxiety transferring over to your child. 

Dealing with separation anxiety all by yourself can be incredibly hard. If you’re feeling stuck and unable to work through this alone, seek professional mental health counselling. 👌

 

How can I help my child with separation anxiety in the UK?

 

Different age groups require different approaches when dealing with separation anxiety. Having said that,  the most Googled question on this topic is – how to deal with separation anxiety in toddlers. We found the answer was simple – make goodbyes easier.  

  • Timing Is Everything

Between the ages of 8 months and 1 year, your child is most likely to experience separation anxiety. 

Try not to introduce an unfamiliar person for childcare at this time. Also, try not to leave your child when they already might be under some stress; when they are tired, hungry, or restless. Scheduling your departures for after naps and mealtimes can significantly reduce separation anxiety in children. 👊

  • Practice Being Apart 

Introduce new childcare situations to your child gradually for short periods. This gives them the space to adapt to new places and people without you. 

If you plan to leave your child with a relative or a new babysitter, invite that person over in advance so they can spend time together while you're in the room. If your child is starting at a new preschool, make a few visits there together before a full-time schedule begins. 

  • Remain Calm and Consistent  

Make the moment you say goodbye to your child a positive one. 💕

Give them loving support when you see them begin to get overwhelmed. Stay calm and show confidence in your child. Reassure them that you are just going away for some time and will be back soon. Try using concepts of time that they understand like after lunch or before bedtime. Make sure you give them a clear goodbye with your full attention. 

  • Keep Your Promise

Always return at the time you promised your child you would. This is crucial because it is the way your child develops trust in you and themselves – that they can make it through the time apart from you.

  • Confidence In Your Caregiver 

It’s incredibly hard to leave a child who's screaming and crying for you. It’s natural to feel guilty for doing so too. Yet you must have confidence that the caregiver will handle the situation and soothe your child. ✊

Cancelling your plans each time on your child’s demands won’t help either of you.  It is only when you’re away from your child that he or she will be able to develop coping skills for managing without you.  

 

How do you fix separation anxiety in children?

 

Separation anxiety in children is a phase of childhood that will pass. It need not be fixed but managed in healthy ways. 

If dealing with separation anxiety in your child is proving hard on you, it’s important to seek external support. Parenting is a challenging job and you don’t need to figure out everything by yourself. ✋ 

  • Therapy Support  

Cognitive behavioural therapy or “talk therapy” can help your child manage their anxiety in better ways. The family must be involved in therapy for your child to get through the challenges of separation anxiety. 

  • School Support 

School is the place your child spends the most time apart from you. Children are most likely to feel much of their separation anxiety at school

Let your child’s teachers know that they struggle with these feelings when they are apart from you, especially if they have SAD. ☝

Easy strategies for managing child separation anxiety at school: 

  • Remind teachers that your child will need extra reassurance and support in certain situations 
  • Have a trusted, familiar school staff member present when your child arrives at school
  • Encourage teachers to identify a safe place where your child can go to reduce anxiety
  • Talk to your child’s teacher about self-calming strategies that they can support your child with when his or her anxiety arises
  • Community Support 

Sometimes knowing that you aren’t alone on the journey can make all the difference. Talking to parents whose children also experience separation anxiety and knowing what works for them can also be helpful. 💯

Organisations like Anxiety UK and Young Minds are dedicated to helping parents and kids manage their anxiety through free resources, activities and professional assistance. 

There is also an entire collection of children’s books to help your child ease their separation anxiety. 

These book recommendations by Sara Lindberg, a writer and secondary school counsellor helped her young son feel “more at ease” while giving him “something symbolic to use when he was feeling anxious.” 😀  

Another more positive way to look at separation anxiety is that a healthy attachment has been developed between you and your child. Managing the anxiety will give your child the independence they need to develop as they grow older. 

Eventually, your child will be able to remember that you always return after you leave, and that will be comforting for both of you when you are away. 😌

 

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