Separation anxiety is so hard on parents and children. For a parent, it is brutal to see your child devastated. Then leaving them in that state of devastation feels terrible. Fortunately, there are powerful strategies that will help your child feel empowered when you’re gone. Whether you’re dealing with separation anxiety in children who are quite young who are older, I have strategies for you here.
It’s hard for me to admit it, but my daughter has separation anxiety.
My hesitation to label her difficulties are two-fold. First of all, my vivacious girl was born ready to fly. When she started both preschool and kindergarten, my heart hurt. She, on the other hand, burst through the school doors with her oversized backpack and didn’t look back. When I had to keep her home from school because she was sick, she made sure to repeatedly tell me how upset she was.
When I’m near her, she appears to be independent to a fault. Since she has been able to dress herself, she’s never let me pick out an outfit. At the park, she’s climbing to the highest peak, selling pizzas made from sand and orchestrating playdates with her new-best-friend-whose-name-she-doesn’t-know.
At home, she needs space to set up elaborate play scenes with LOLs and my old doll furniture or concoct a craft that requires steps that I “would never understand.”
But a couple of years ago, I noticed a change.
My daughter was completely fine leaving me to go to school or have a playdate with friends. But, when I left her to go to yoga on Sundays, she would cry and cling to me. She would attempt to block my car and my husband would have to take her inside and reassure her.
In time, her episodes became less intense.
A few days ago, my child’s separation anxiety reared its ugly head again.
This summer, we moved across the country and, as a result, my daughter changed schools. We are staying at my parents’ place until we are ready to move into our new home. And, instead of being able to walk to school as she once did, we now have a 25-minute drive. Her first two days were “The best day ever.”
Soon, however, she realized how far I was from the school when she was there.
On Thursday, she refused to go. But, I was able to coach her through her morning. By the time we got to school, she was starting to panic. When I tried to leave her with her class, she was holding on to my leg, crying and shaking.
What is separation anxiety in kids?
It is important to address what separation anxiety in kids looks like. Around eight months of age (and in many cases earlier), infants become distressed when their primary caregivers put them down, leave the room, or hand them to someone they’re less familiar with. Though this is challenging, it is typical for babies through infanthood into early toddlerhood.
Separation anxiety disorder, however, isn’t as typical and is distressing to both the child and her parent.
According to WebMD, symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder include:
- An unrealistic and lasting worry that something bad will happen to the parent or caregiver if the child leaves,
- An unrealistic and lasting worry that something bad will happen to the child if he or she leaves the caregiver,
- Refusal to go to school in order to stay with the caregiver,
- Refusal to go to sleep without the caregiver being nearby or to sleep away from home,
- Fear of being alone,
- Nightmares about being separated,
- Bed wetting,
- Complaints of physical symptoms, such as headaches and stomachaches, on school days, and
- Repeated temper tantrums or pleading.
Related reading: Why You Shouldn’t Punish Tantrums and What You Can Do Instead
If you suspect your child has separation anxiety disorder, speak to a medical professional for a treatment plan.
Finding ways to empower my child in the face of separation anxiety
Today, my daughter went off to school without issue. I’m treading lightly but she’s doing really well thanks to these strategies.
Here are the best tips I have for easing separation anxiety in kids. They are rooted in research, my own experience, and interviewing school staff who help parents and kids through separation anxiety at the beginning of every school year.
How to Ease Separation Anxiety In Children
1. Do your best to determine the source of your child’s separation anxiety.
If your child is older, you can ask if there is a specific incident that has triggered his feelings. You may already have an idea if you’ve just moved, there’s been a death in the family or a separation from the child’s parent or step-parent. Or, you may not. Sometimes, separation anxiety can exist in the absence of a noticeable trigger.
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2. Acknowledge your child’s fears no matter how unrealistic they seem.
In the book, The Yes Brain: How to cultivate courage, curiosity and resilience in your child, authors Siegel and Payne Bryson explain that children who are in a state of anxiety are in a reactive mental state. Their brains are in the fight, flight or freeze response and their executive functioning is no longer working as it should. In order to get their brains back into an integrated state, parents need to acknowledge feelings. In doing this, children get the emotional release they need and become much more open to reason.
Siegel and Payne Bryson illustrate ways to talk to children that either reinforce a “no brain” state of mind (closed off, unwilling to move forward, in fight, flight or freeze) or move them into a “yes brain” (resilient, courageous, open).
“You don’t need to be scared,” versus “I can see you’re scared.”
“You’ve always liked school,” versus, “I know you liked school. Now you really don’t want to go. What’s changed?”
“You’re fine. Don’t worry,” versus “This worry is hard for you. How can we work through this together?”
3. Create social stories that address your child’s fear and describes her overcoming her anxiety.
Before a child starts at daycare, school, or is left with a babysitter, create a story addressing how your child feels. Then describe how the transition will go. For instance, “At drop off, I’ll wait until your teacher greets you. Then I’ll leave. You may feel really nervous when I’m leaving. When you see your friends, you will start to feel better…”
Read more about how to execute this technique here.
4. Schedule in time to ease the transition.
This could mean waking earlier, leaving the house earlier so there’s time to address emotions at drop off, or simply having one-on-one time to talk about what’s going on. Transitions tend to be hard for people with anxiety and extra accommodations can go a long way.
For instance, we start getting ready for school earlier so that if my daughter starts to feel anxious, we have the time to address it without running late for school too.
Related reading: How to Empower and Celebrate Your Sensitive Son
5. Generally speaking, do not give your child days off or cut his day short to ease the transition.
In my article about after-school meltdowns, I suggest that a child may benefit from a day off mid-week to rest. This works well for a child who is overstimulated and overtired from school.
However, when it comes to separation anxiety, it is better to make sure school or daycare is non-negotiable. The more concessions you make, the longer it will take for your child to overcome insecurities. When I interviewed a school principal with decades of experience, she said, children with anxiety did better when their parents made sure school attendance was mandatory.
That said, talk to your child’s teacher, daycare provider or babysitter and ask their insights. They have an inner understanding of what’s best for your child and the environment he is in. Use their judgement and your own to determine the best course of action for your child.
6. At drop off, let her know when you’ll be back and stick to that plan.
Using age-appropriate explanations tell your child when you will be back. For example, when my son was starting preschool, I explained he would play, have a snack and before lunchtime I would be back to get him.
For example, when my daughter started to get scared about the distance from my parents’ to her school, I offered to work from the Starbucks near her school for the first two hours of her school day. It is definitely a unique accommodation, but it was something I could do and it made her feel less vulnerable. I also promised I would arrive at school early so she would never have to wait for me at pickup.
Related reading: How to respond when your child hates school – experts weigh in
7. Have a quick goodbye ritual, but don’t skip goodbye.
While you should allow for enough time to help your child feel a bit more at ease, prolonging the inevitable isn’t helpful.
Once a child has had a moment to familiarize herself with their sitter, classroom or similar, you should make your exit.
Though it may be tempting to sneak out the door when your child is distracted, easing separation anxiety hinges on your child feeling confident and a sense of trust about their situation.
8. Purchase or borrow children’s books that will empower your child.
Books are a great way to empower your child and ease separation anxiety. Here are some teacher-recommended books.
Llama Llama Misses Mama by Anna Dewdney
The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn
I Don’t Want to Go to School by A.J. Cosmo
The Night Before Preschool by Natasha Wing
The Night Before Kindergarten by Natasha Wing
Where Ever You Go My Love Will Find You by Nancy Tillman
I Love You All Day Long by Francesca Rusackas
Daniel Tiger Goes to School by Becky Friedman
8. If your child is old enough, ask probing questions and problem-solve together.
In his book, The Explosive Child, Dr Ross Greene talks about the power of brainstorming with children to empower them through their biggest emotional challenges. Take your child out for a hot-chocolate date or sit down at the dinner table and ask your child about what would make her feel more empowered. Validate their suggestions no matter how much they make sense. Work together to find something that works. In the case of my daughter, we decided I would drop her off and pick her up as opposed to her having to take the bus.
A final note about easing separation anxiety
School drop off and pick up are seamless right now. The day after her episode, I agreed to stay in the vicinity of the school. I work from home and simply brought my laptop to a coffee shop for that day.
For the time being, I agreed that she didn’t have to go on the school bus (that I would do drop off and pickup) we were more settled. At the same time, she understands she has to go to school. She is happy going to and from school and I feel a sense of relief.
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