As a family life and child development expert, JP has devoted years in nurturing students and strengthening family relations.
What is Separation Anxiety in Children?
I have a front row seat in separation anxiety in children every first day of school. There is a familiar scene - children desperately clinging on to their parents while crying like it’s the end of the world. Sure, this is a classic example of separation anxiety. But what exactly are kids anxious about? Separation anxiety is a natural reaction of young children to being away from familiar people usually their parents. Thus, this behavior manifests not just on the first day of school. When you leave your child even for a few minutes may trigger this. Likewise, when your child wakes and suddenly find himself alone is a harrowing experience for some kids, hence separation anxiety. The thought of separation is stressful to children thus it may trigger behaviors like crying, being overly clingy, psychosomatic reactions, and vomiting among others. Moreover, there may be less obvious manifestations like poor social interaction with other people, declining performance in school, or withdrawal from groups and other individuals. As such, addressing this behavior and helping your child cope with separation anxiety is an important part of our jobs as parents.
1. Divert Attention Using Activities That They Enjoy
Redirection is one technique that works with my students. Often, they would cling to their parents at the start of the day. However, when they see something that they enjoy doing, it gets their attention. I often ask parents what their kids enjoy doing more than being with them? And it’s no surprise it ranges from cartoons to rolling on mud. Choose wisely! The real challenge here is keeping them engaged for a long time.
Suggestions to ease separation anxiety:
- Know what your child likes - observe them carefully
- Provide an activity that does not include you
- Choose an activity that they like doing with someone else
- Prepare several activities and substitute quickly when signs of anxiety sets in
2. Create Routines
As an educator, I see the benefits of creating routines in helping the child deal with separation anxiety since it provides consistency in your child’s schedule. Whether it’s going to school or you leaving for work, creating routines gives children something expect. So, don’t let your child guess on what’s next. Instead, have a routine to lessen your child’s separation anxiety.
Tips for parents in creating routines:
- Create a calendar
- Have an itinerary and share it with your child
- Include activities that the child likes in his routines
- Make your return special to build anticipation
3. Short and Sweet Farewell
Short farewells seem to work best in most cases compared to long ones. It’s like ripping the band aid. It can sting but the pain soon dissipates. A student of mine takes ages to say goodbye to his mom during schooldays. He clings to her and in numerous instances he cried. The mom usually lingers around as soon as she drops off her child. However, when I asked her to immediately leave after a short farewell, her child adjusted faster. Moreover, I asked the mom to focus on more positive words like “I’ll pick you after you have fun at school”, “I’ll see you later and you can tell me all the fun activities you did here today.”
- Create a secret goodbye handshake and welcome back handshake
- Once the goodbye is said, immediately have someone provide an interesting activity
- Focus on saying “I’ll see you” rather than “goodbye”
4. Create Anticipation for The Return
Make your child excited for your return. This will help in having the child focus on what is to come rather than being away from you. This can range from simple activities you can do together to special surprises. Make your child excited to see you but make sure the condition is for you to go away for a while first.
- Do something the child likes upon your return
- Keep your promises
- Ask the child to make something for you while you are gone
5. Tokens of security
I remember a student of mine who has a blanket with her. She embraces it when she feels anxious. A familiar object will keep the child less anxious. There were several instances when I asked parents to leave notes for their kids. You can do the same and be a little more creative. You can place it in their lunch box, hide it in their pencil case. These tokens of security can be ordinary objects - even objects that they use at school. I remember a parent tying a ribbon on her daughter’s pencil and it worked equally great.
- Remember that it does not have to be expensive
- Choose something familiar
- Oftentimes, the child chooses which one feels comfortable
- Do not force an item on your child
6. Explain what to expect
Children may feel abandoned when their parents suddenly disappear. Moreover, this may lead to trust issues and aggravate their separation anxiety. Rather than do a disappearing act on your child, talk about what they can expect. Explain why you need to go and what they can do in your absence. Moreover, talk about when you’ll return and what you will do together.
Suggestions when talking to your child:
- Keep it brief
- Use simple words that your child can understand
- Reassure your child that everything will be OK
- Keep your promises
Separation anxiety is a real cause for concern. Address the concern immediately properly to avoid adverse effects on your child. Getting over it takes time and more importantly trust. As a parent, we we endeavor to keep our children psychologically safe. By employing these separation anxiety parenting tips we can help our children cope with this dreadful feeling.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 JP Carlos