Children with separation anxiety demonstrate extreme distress when they’re apart from their caregivers. Difficulty separating is normal at certain developmental stages, but becomes problematic (and can even be indicative of a disorder) when it interferes with an older child’s comfort level with attending school, going to a playdate, or being left with a safe babysitter. When children react with strong emotions every time there’s a separation, that can weigh heavily on parents’ hearts.
Separation anxiety can bring up all sorts of feelings in caregivers – guilt, frustration, sadness, and their own anxiety around separation and attachment. These are common and understandable reactions! However, it’s crucial for parents to keep their own feelings in check in order to respond effectively to anxious children. Fortunately, there are strategies you can take before, during, and after an episode of separation anxiety in order to help lessen the distress.
How parents can help:
Prepare the child for your absence before you leave
Don’t sneak out the door when they’re not watching in order to avoid the meltdown. This creates distrust in kids and can make future reactions even worse. Instead, let your child know in advance that you’ll be leaving, and how long you’ll be gone if possible. Example: “Today, we’re going to the park to play. When we get back, Grandpa will stay with you while I go to the dentist. I’ll be back in time to make supper.”
If your child will be going to school for the first time this fall, OR if they’ve been to school and separation has already been a challenge, summer is the perfect time to practice being apart from each other. Leave your child with a trusted caregiver for small increments of time, and gradually build this up as they become more comfortable.
Having options may help your child feel even a small amount of control and security over the situation. Here are a couple of ways you can offer choices:
- “You can call me later – would you rather call after dinner or right before bed?”
- “When I get home, you can help me make cookies. Should we do chocolate chip or peanut butter?”
- “Do you want to open the door for me to go, or do you want me to open it?”
Let them feel their feelings
Get on your child’s level and let them express their concerns. Listen with patience and compassion. Do not try to suggest that they “not think about it” or logic them out of it. Here are some suggestions of things to say:
- “You’re scared to be away from me. I understand.”
- “Grandma will be here to keep you safe.”
- “You’re really upset with me. It’s okay to be upset.”
Be supportive, but stick to limits
Giving into your child’s tears and clinginess by staying home may help in the short term, but it’ll only make the separation even worse next time, because now your child will have learned that the behavior “works” in their favor. I’m not suggesting that your child is trying to manipulate you; the fear is genuine, but that doesn’t mean they don’t benefit from it in indirect ways. Children with separation anxiety have a deep-seated belief that they aren’t safe without their primary caregivers around. Giving in reinforces that fear.
On your way out the door, tell your child, “I can see you’re upset. I love you, and I’ll see you soon.” (Be sure to say it with true empathy! Saying it with frustration will not help.)
Be calm and confident
Leaving a screaming kid can be gut-wrenching. Remember though that children feed off their parents’ feelings and reactions. When your child sees you keeping your cool and showing confidence that they can handle this, it helps them to believe that about themselves, too.
Check in after separation
When you return, sit with your child and reflect on the separation. Do not minimize feelings (e.g, “See? You made a big deal out of nothing!”), but DO help them see that the anxious or sad reaction did not last forever. They likely felt calm soon after the departure. Ask them what helped most during the separation – a hug from the sitter? A fun activity? Provide lots of encouragement for the child ability to be without you.
Last thing: kids with anxious or stressed parents may be more prone to developing separation anxiety. If you think this may be true in your situation, the biggest way you can help your child is by helping yourself first. Find a trusted person you can discuss your feelings with, be it a partner, friend, or mental health professional. Practice relaxation by taking deep breaths and remember to take care of your basic needs. These efforts also model healthy coping skills for your child.