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Separation Anxiety: A Guide for Parents

As a parent, it’s sometimes hard to be away from your kids. But it’s an indescribable, heartwarming feeling when you return – their smiles, the running to you with open arms, their tiny arms squeezing your neck. Whether you’ve been gone ten minutes or two days, that moment, this sweet reward, is everything.

But what if reunions aren’t possible because the goodbyes are too much for your child to bear? If goodbyes are full of tears and fits, your little one might have separation anxiety.

What is separation anxiety?

“Separation anxiety is a normal part of development that occurs when toddlers begin to grow more aware and develop stronger relationships with their caregivers,” said Jerimya Fox, a licensed professional counselor and a doctor of behavioral health at Banner Behavioral Health Hospital. “This awareness can make them more apprehensive and possibly feel unsafe without their family members or caregiver.”

Whether it’s dropping your child off at daycare or leaving your child at home as you head out to work, farewells can be difficult. Your child may understand that mommy and daddy didn’t disappear forever, but they might not know for how long. All they know is that they feel safest when you’re around.

What causes it?

Children typically develop separation anxiety before age 1 and peters out around age 3, but it can be experienced by older children and young adults as well—particularly during major life changes (i.e., transitioning to high school or leaving for college). Certain stressful life events can trigger feelings of anxiety about being separated, such as divorce, loss of a pet, new caregiver, a new sibling, a new school or moving to a new place.

“There’s a lot going on in the world, particularly right now, which makes sense why some children may be worried and anxious,” Dr. Fox said. “Things like COVID-19 can raise anxiety and fear if children are returning to school in person after being virtual.”

Tips to reduce separation anxiety

Separation anxiety may come and go, but there’s plenty you can do to help ease your child’s symptoms. These tips can help them through this difficult period.

  • Talk to your child in a calm, positive tone. Let your child know what will happen while you are gone, who they will be with and all the fun things they get to do. Even if you feel your child is too young to understand, your positive tone and attitude will send a reassuring message. It may even be helpful to find and read picture books that talk about separation and that goodbyes aren’t forever.
  • Practice separating. Practice leaving your child at home with a caregiver for a short period of time. As time goes on, you can extend the time you are away before returning home.
  • Ease the separation. Leave your child with their favorite stuffed animal or toy.
  • Prepare an activity. Engage your child in a fun activity when the caregiver arrives or ask the daycare teacher to have an activity ready as soon as you drop your child off.
  • Don’t play Houdini. Although you may want to quickly disappear, doing so may confuse your child when they realize you’re gone.
  • Make your goodbye short. Whenever you leave your child or drop them off, keep the goodbye brief. “If you act anxious or keep returning for just one more hug or kiss, you may unnecessarily worry your child,” Dr. Fox said.
  • Follow through on your promise. It’s important that you return when you promised to return as this helps your child build confidence and trust.
  • Aim for consistency. Kids like consistency, so try to schedule the same caregiver whenever possible, so your child feels more comfortable when you leave. Develop a brief, consistent routine for when you leave to create a familiar transition from being with you to being without you.

Additional tips for older children

Although separation anxiety is more common in elementary-aged children, teens can experience it too. Here are some additional tips to help your adolescent child:

  • Acknowledge their fears. Let them know you’re there for them and that uneasy feelings are natural parts of adolescence.
  • Praise them for doing something they are anxious about.
  • Gently encourage, don’t force, them to do things that make them anxious.
  • Wait until your child is anxious before stepping in to help.
  • Remind your child of times when they were initially afraid but still managed to do something.

When separation anxiety continues and worsens

Separation anxiety can be normal and temporary. Although it can be difficult for your child, and for you as their parent, remember this indicates a strong attachment between you and your child.

However, if you notice your child’s anxiety starts affecting their daily life and academics, talk to their doctor. “Things like stomach aches, vomiting, headaches, constant worry about losing you or a loved one to a disease or illness or a reluctance to sleep away from you may be a sign of a more serious emotional problem called separation anxiety disorder (SAD),” Dr. Fox said. “The main difference between the two is that with SAD their fears keep them from normal activities.”

Helping a child with separation anxiety disorder

You don’t want to see your child in distress, so you may be tempted to avoid the things they’re afraid of. However, this may only reinforce their anxiety long-term. Instead, try to combat separation anxiety early on.

“Early diagnosis and treatment can help prevent their condition from getting worse,” Dr. Fox said. “Your child’s doctor or a mental health specialist can help develop a solid treatment plan to prevent worsening symptoms.”

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