This week we will highlight the Do’s and Don’ts to help ease separations with your child.
QUICK TIP: Significant separation anxiety is a very real and distressing feeling for your child. The more you can learn and understand why they may be feeling this way, the more effective your guidance and support will be in helping them overcome their anxiety
What is Child Separation Anxiety? A Quick Recap
Separation anxiety is a normal stage of emotional development for all children. It typically emerges between 7-9 months of age, and tends to ease by about two and a half years of age. It is also very common for children to experience periods of separation anxiety when they are going through life changes, transitions, or when they learning to adjust to a new separation from their parents. Separation anxiety when left untreated can often generalise and become a pattern for some children, for example on-going significant separation anxiety at kinder drop off all year can transfer to distressing separations in Prep the following year.
Separation anxiety is characterised by excessive clinginess and distress when separating from a primary caregiver. Children may cry, scream, protest, and become highly distressed in anticipation of a separation, at the point of separation, as well as for a short period of time after being separated from their parent. Some children may become pre-occupied with their parent’s presence and whereabouts, and may worry that something bad might happen to their parent when they are not together.
See Separation Anxiety for more information on symptoms, causes and treatment.
Shannyn Wilson Psychology ~ Building Life Long Resilience
The Five Do’s
- Always say goodbye – Whether you are at home or in another setting, always make sure your child is aware that you are going by making sure they give you eye contact when you say goodbye. If you sneak out to avoid a meltdown, you can actually increase their anxiety and preoccupation with you because they learn not to trust you, and may worry that you might ‘disappear’ when they are not looking
- Leave a little piece of you with them – If your child is having a hard time with separations, do give your child something they can take with them in their bag to kinder or school for the first few weeks that remind them of you. For example, a little photo flip book, or something of yours that your child can associate with you, such as a scarf, or a key ring from your key chain they can attach to their bag
- Help them warm up to a new place – If your child is going to a brand new place for the first time, and you are planning to leave them there independently, then it is crucial that you help them to establish a sense of safety and familiarity there. In terms of transitions to a new care such as child care, Kinder or School, stay around for a while until you can see that your child is warming up and feeling able to move away from you on their own terms to explore the environment. How long this is depends on their developmental age, previous experience of successful and unsuccessful separations, and their temperament. For example, it is not uncommon for child care settings to encourage you to stay with them for the first hour without separating at all, and you may need to do this multiple times in order to allow your child an opportunity to feel safe and comfortable in that environment. This is really helpful for ‘slow-to-warm’ kids, who like to sit on the edge and take things in before they feel comfortable to start joining in. Try engaging them in an activity before saying goodbye. For children who are finding it difficult to separate from you, it is important to consider who is the adult you are ‘handing the parenting over to’, and look at establishing a connection between parent and carer in front of the child, or include a carer in your settling activity with your small children. Security begins from a place of safety. Safety and trust in other carers take time, and it is so common for parents to overlook realistically how long developing trust and safety can take for not only children and adolescents, but adults too.
- Tune into your own feelings – Children will tend to gauge whether a situation is safe or not by the way you react to it. If you are anticipating that drop off will be “terrible!”, then your child is very likely to pick up this. Similarly, if your child is currently having a difficult time separating from you at drop off such as child care, kinder, or school, and you walk away and hop into the car in tears and feeling an entire cascade of emotions like parent guilt, anxiety, or distress from seeing your little one upset, this is a great way to empathise with how your child might also be feeling whilst they are adjusting to you leaving. If you are struggling with the drop off, chances are you both are, and could both use a few extra coping strategies up your sleeve. All behaviour and emotion has meaning, and too much distress in either of you could suggest that maybe the transition set up needs a little tweaking and extra support.
- Encourage independence when they have the capacity for it – Ever noticed that your child tends to defer to you to do the things you know they can actually do themselves? Such as getting themselves dressed, getting their drink, setting up a game, or packing up their toys? Finding ways to celebrate, praise and encourage in a firm but kind way their ability to do something themselves helps children feel more capable when they are not around you, which in turn, can help ease separation anxiety.
The Five Don’ts
- Don’t rush the morning routine – Don’t rush out the door, or try to race the kids into the schoolyard before the bell if your child is having difficulties with separating. Rushed routines will add stress to your child’s emotional system as the environment is stressed, and no doubt you are too. Try to factor in an extra half hour in order to slow the pace down.
- Don’t pretend you are just popping out – Don’t give an unrealistic expectation regarding the length of your separation, such as popping out quickly, or that you will ‘be right back’, if you are planning to be gone for more than 10 minutes. Your child will learn not to trust your word. If your child doesn’t read the time, try instead using something familiar to them, such as “I’ll be back after your morning snack”.
- Don’t allow your child to completely avoid periods of separation – Avoidance is a strategy to cope, so the more we avoid things, the stronger that coping strategy becomes. However, it is important to get some assistance to develop appropriate strategies to gradually build your child’s confidence and success at separating from you.
- Don’t drag out goodbyes – This is actually a delicate balance to get right. It is the very moment of separation that is most distressing for your child, and understandably this can be a tricky point for both child and parent. It’s helpful to try making a little goodbye routine, like a hug and a kiss and a high five, and letting them know when they will see you again. If your child is struggling it’s OK to give an extra cuddle and help calm their system for a few more minutes. Sometimes children just need a little longer some days to get ready to say goodbye. But if the goodbye is drawn out each time you try to separate, it could be helpful to get some extra support and guidance around this. There’s a fine line between rushing the goodbye and overlooking your child’s attempt at communicating with you, and lingering too long which can lengthen the process and generate more distress for both of you. Listen to what your child is communicating to you and work your strategies around that.
- Don’t get angry with your child when they are distressed at drop off – We know this is easier said than done. As frustrating and stressful as it can sometimes be, if you get angry or abrupt with your child, this may just add to their sense of helplessness and distress. Anger often signals you are feeling at a loss in knowing how to help your child, and can be a good time to seek some assistance from an experienced psychologist, to give you some handy tips and strategies.
If you are concerned about your child’s level of separation anxiety, speaking with a psychologist experienced in assessing and treating separation anxiety disorder can help you to determine whether your child is experiencing a separation anxiety problem, and if so, can help build important tools to guide you and your child through their anxiety.
Related Blogs: Is This Typical Separation Anxiety? A Guide For Parents
Written by Shannyn Wilson, psychologist at Shannyn Wilson Psychology.
Wilson. S (2014). Neuropsychotherapy principles in the treatment of separation anxiety disorder in children. In Rossow. P. J. Neuropsychotherapy: Theoretical Underpinnings & Clinical Applications. (pp. 230 – 270). Brisbane: Mediros Pty Ltd.