By Danielle Mayer, Wood’s Homes Youth and Family Counsellor
Separation anxiety can be defined as a feeling of strong fear and anxiety experienced by a young child when they are separated from their parent or caregiver. It’s a common part of the developmental process for children (six months to four years of age) to experience symptoms of separation anxiety, such as crying, tantrums and clinginess; however, the intensity level and timing of these reactions will vary from child to child.
When entering a new environment, such as school, extracurricular activities and/or places that may seem overwhelming and unfamiliar, it can be difficult for children to understand and cope with feelings. They may have a hard time grasping why their parents/caregivers are leaving and whether or no they are coming back. These feelings of anxiety can manifest in negative reactions, such as refusal to go somewhere or engage in an activity, physical sickness in the form of nausea or headaches, or reluctance to go to sleep and potential nightmares.
If you have a young child who is experiencing difficulties related to separation, here are some techniques and strategies you can use to help make these transitions less stressful:
Reassure your child. One of the most important things you can do to reassure your child is to make it clear you love them and will be coming back – this is a temporary separation.
Have a conversation. Having a conversation about this process beforehand, tailored to your child’s age and understanding, is an easy way to prepare them for the situation and ease their fears.
Set a goodbye ritual. Having a specific routine that you use each time you say goodbye is reassuring for your child. These routines can include a special hug, wave from a specific window or a kiss on the hand. Once you’ve completed this ritual, it’s important to leave and avoid coming back to comfort the child further. Trust that they are in good hands and capable of making a successful transition.
Get a transition object. Some children may benefit from a transition object that they can keep with them when they are experiencing feelings of sadness or worry. Something small, such as a photo or trinket, can be very comforting in times of distress.
Be on time! This is extremely important. Demonstrate that you are consistent and trustworthy by showing up when your child expects you to. In turn, it will create a sense of safety for them.
Avoid slipping away unnoticed. It’s important to note that these departures can often be more difficult for parents than they are for children, but leaving unnoticed is an easy way to break your child’s trust. Be aware of your own feelings, anxieties and fears – they can be interpreted by your child and make the experience more difficult for them.
Make a plan. Having a plan in place for your child, those involved in their daily activities and yourself can help ease concerns and allow for a smooth transition process.
Support, praise and reward your child’s efforts. Use positive reinforcement by telling them they have done a good job and that you acknowledge their challenges and are proud of their efforts to overcome them. Knowing they have your support and that their progress is being noticed can help to encourage further progress.
Take care of yourself. Children with parents who are visibly anxious and/or stressed have a higher risk of displaying separation anxiety. Creating a calm and relaxed demeanour, eating well, exercising daily, getting proper amounts of sleep and having a sense of humour can make dealing with separation anxiety easier to cope with.
If you notice your child displaying behaviours associated with separation anxiety, and they are not being responsive to the above techniques/strategies and their behaviours are lasting for long periods of time or are interfering with activities/relationships, there could be more serious underlying issues or anxieties. In these cases, it can be beneficial to talk to your child’s doctor, a school counsellor or look into other forms of therapy to help your child ease their fears.
Ask for help. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your friends, family and community – let’s work together!