Separation anxiety is normal in some children.
They don’t want to be away from their parent. They’re clingy. They cry when you leave.
In time, they ‘get over it’.
But some kids don’t ‘get over it’.
Some kids separation anxiety gets worse. It interferes with your work. It interferes with their schooling. Your child has a legitimate fear that if they are not with you, something bad will happen. This, is separation anxiety disorder.
Causes of Separation Anxiety
- Separation anxiety can occur due to a change in your child’s environment (moving, someone moving in, someone moving out, attending a new school or daycare, etc.)
- Stress can cause separation anxiety. What does a child have to stress over at such a young age, right? Any change in their environment can cause stress. The death of a loved one or a pet can create stress. A pet that ran away. Fighting within the home. Believe it or not, kids can have stress!
- Parents can be the cause of separation anxiety. Overprotective parents can cause separation anxiety in their children. Parents with their own anxiety issues can also result in separation anxiety.
Children display emotions in all different sorts of manner.
For some kids, they will cry hysterically for their parent when it’s time to separate (e.g. leaving at school, at daycare, a night time). They may reach out for you, cry out for you.
For children with separation anxiety, there are some things you may try to help alleviate some of their anxiety.
- Practice separation. Start with small amounts of time and slowly increase the time apart.
- Try to ensure your child is rested and fed. Being tired and hungry can increase the separation anxiety.
- Develop a goodbye ritual. Before I leave the house, I get a kiss from everyone in the entry way and then tell them each that I love them. Create a ritual that works for you and your child. (Growing up, my sisters and I had a night time routine. Every night we would say “goodnight, I love you, see you tomorrow” to our parents before heading off to bed. Every night.)
- Make the setting comfortable for your child. If a caregiver can come to your house, great. If they have to go to daycare, let them bring something special from home. If they have to go to school, maybe let them bring a note written by you, or put something special in their backpack that they can touch when they get worried.
- Consistency. Try to keep the same care giver. Try to leave at the same time every day. Repeat your routine. We can’t always control some aspects, but when you can, keep the consistency.
- Keep your promise. If you say you will return at a certain time, try really hard to make it. If something happens that you can’t be there at that time, call. Speak to the caregiver. Ask to speak to your child.
- Be specific in child speak. When my kids were attending daycare, I knew what shows they were watching in the afternoon so I was able to tell my kids that I would be there to pick them up when a certain show was on. This allowed them to know, in their time, what time I was coming.
- Don’t dilly dally. Hanging around after saying goodbye only makes it worse. When you say you are leaving and you have done your goodbye routine, leave.
- Don’t give in. I know, easier said than done, but it goes hand in hand with consistency. If you aren’t consistent or you give in, it’s only going to make it harder (for both parties!)
- Minimize scary shows. I cannot stress this one enough. What we may not view as scary can definitely appear scary to your child. And that scary thing can increase their anxiety about leaving you.
Separation Anxiety Disorder
Separation Anxiety Disorder is taking separation anxiety to the next level. To the level that it doesn’t go away. It gets worse.
- A child with separation anxiety disorder may refuse to go to school (I could tell stories about the arguments we would get in with B when it was time for him to start Kindergarten!)
- A child will do everything in their power to stay awake at night. (And then you usually find them asleep half in their room, half in the hallway.)
- A child may complain of sickness often.
- A child may be clingy to their caregiver.
- A child may display aggressive behaviors. (We learned this when B was diagnosed with anxiety. His aggressive behaviors were due to his anxiety.)
Dealing with separation anxiety disorder takes patience. If you suspect your child has separation anxiety disorder, educate yourself. Listen to your child’s feelings. Respect their feelings. Talk to them about it.
Because of my own anxiety disorder, I was able to empathize with B regarding his fears (he has anxiety disorder as well, but he had separation anxiety up until Kindergarten). His fears of being separated was the fear of something happening that would permanently separate us. Talk to your child and see what their fear is.
If your child’s separation anxiety because harmful to your child or others, consider seeking help.
Our limit was reached with B’s aggressive behavior. With an older sister and a younger sister, we couldn’t allow him to continue his aggressive behavior. We sought out professional help.
There are different types of therapy for children dealing with separation anxiety, including talk therapy, play therapy, school based counseling, and family counseling.
Most importantly, take care of yourself as well. You are no help to your child if you are not taking care of yourself. And know that you are not alone when it comes to dealing with separation anxiety or separation anxiety disorder.