Coping With Your Child’s Separation Anxiety

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It’s natural for children to seek comfortable environments. They may want to stay at home with you versus climbing on the school bus for the first time, or even cling to your leg when introduced to new people.

According to Dr. Wendy Rice, Florida-based licensed psychologist, separation anxiety is common in a child’s development. They don’t want to see a parent disappear from sight because they like the comfort and nurturing their caregivers provide.

Many children, though, struggle with separation anxiety that can lead to social problems, a fear of being alone and an inability to act independently. You can help cope with these anxieties through strategies that will reassure them that the love they crave will be waiting when they return.

The Signs and Symptoms

According to California-based psychotherapist Christina Steinorth, a child with separation anxiety will feel an intense fear of being physically apart from a parent. “There will be a very unrealistic fear that they are going to be abandoned or for some other reason unable to see their mother again,” she says. “Sometimes, the child will feel that if he or she is away from mom that something bad will happen – kind of like the separation will bring her harm in some way.”

Steinorth cites the following symptoms parents and caregivers should learn to recognize:

  • Excessive distress when separated from you
  • Reluctance to go to school or other places because of the fear of separation
  • Reluctance to go to sleep without you nearby
  • Worry about losing you or harm coming to you

Separation anxiety is not gender specific, says Steinorth. “It affects just as many girls as it does boys,” she says.

Separation is often more difficult when it is prolonged (overnight or longer), when it occurs abruptly and the child is not prepared for it or when the child is left in unfamiliar surroundings and with unfamiliar caretakers, says Rice.

Helping a Child Overcome Separation Anxiety

The key to helping a child cope with separation anxiety is to prepare for the separation, build mutual confidence between the parent, caregiver and child and ensure a joyous reunion.

Rice suggests starting small in situations when your child must be away from you. “Practice short separations,” she says. “Encourage short stays – even just 10 minutes, with a sitter or another adult and eventually increase the distance and the length of time.”

Try to avoid overnight separations until your child is older and make time to talk with your child about the separation by detailing the schedule, who will be caring for him or her, where you will be and when you will return, suggests Rice. “Use language that is simple and straightforward and use a positive tone of voice.”

Providing the child with advance notice gives him time to talk about his worries and allows you the opportunity to inform the substitute caregiver about your child’s personality, likes and dislikes, specific worries and fears, daily routine and strategies to soothe him.

If possible, send along a favorite toy, book, photo or audio recording of you singing or talking to your child, says Rice. “Use a transitional object that the child can use to help sooth anxieties by being reminded of your love,” she says.

According to Steinorth, there are three additional factors that can help a child work through separation anxiety:

  • A child needs to trust mom will return
  • A child needs to trust caretakers other than mom
  • A child needs to feel safe and secure in his or her home environment

To help your child feel safe and secure, Steinorth recommends minimizing any stressful situations at home and practicing consistency with schedules.

Diminishing the Dramatics

One surefire way to ignite and fuel your child’s separation anxiety is to make a production when leaving. “Excessive hugging, reassurances and stalling before leaving will only increase the anxiety your child feels,” says Steinorth. “When you do these things, you’re reinforcing your child’s anxious behavior.”

Don’t feed the behavior. Instead, help minimize it by making your departures without fanfare. Leave when you say you are going to and just do it,” recommends Steinorth.

If all else fails and your child is not responding to behavioral interventions, the help of a professional counselor may be necessary. “It would be a good thing to talk with your doctor to explore possible treatment options that may include counseling and treatment with anti-anxiety medications,” says Steinorth.

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