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How to manage your child’s separation anxiety

Sometimes, saying goodbye can create feelings of worry and upset in your child. Here are some tips that might be helpful.

It’s easy to think of the “typical milestones” when it comes to raising a child, such as crawling, walking, and talking. But, it’s also important to remember that learning to say goodbye to Mom and Dad is also a milestone in the development of true independence.

Every child goes through periods where they don’t want to be separated from their parent(s) and become emotional, upset, and teary. ‘Separation anxiety’ is normal, especially in very young children. In fact, nearly all children between the ages of 18 months and three years old have separation anxiety and are clingy to some degree. However, if your child suffers from severe separation anxiety, these tips may be helpful, so read on.

Managing childhood separation anxiety

“Managing childhood separation anxiety well is vital. Be careful that your child doesn’t pick up your anxiety too. Your goal is to raise independent, well-functioning adults, and this must underpin all interactions with your child,” says Angela Hutchison, parenting skills coach and founder of Parent Works.

Separation anxiety in babies

Around six to eight months of age, babies may develop separation anxiety. This often peaks at around nine months. Symptoms range from slight upset to distress. A baby may fear that his parents won’t return when he’s out of sight. Object permanence resolves closer to one year of age when separation anxiety becomes less of an issue.

Separation anxiety in toddlers

Separation anxiety peaks again at around 18 months, and can take the form of tantrums and showing aggression.

Separation anxiety in older children

If you’re leaving your child at daycare or school, it can be stressful if separation issues emerge. A child may even develop a stomachache the night before, in anticipation.

How to help your baby and toddler cope with separation anxiety

  • Object permanence, the understanding that objects still exist even if you can’t see, feel or hear them, is still developing in babies aged six to eight months. Your little one can’t understand that when you leave the room, you’re not gone forever.
  • Games like peekaboo and hide-and-seek encourage the development of object permanence. When you have a task to do in the next room, encourage your baby to play with toys. Praise your baby for his attempts to amuse himself. Saying goodbye when leaving the room and continuing to speak to him from the other room can assure him that you’re within reach. On returning, a warm cuddle will reassure him.
  • For toddlers, it’s important to empathise through physical actions, by holding your child close, spending time calming him, and offering words of encouragement – ones that give him a sense of what he can do. Having a favourite soft toy or blanket that your little one knows is consistent whether his caregiver is around or not and can also help to ease the anxiety.
  • A parent may need to examine their own guilt or anxiety at having to leave their child. Children pick up on this. Don’t prolong goodbyes. A child may get the message that there really is something to worry about when they see anxiety in their parent.

Ways to help your older child cope with separation anxiety

We tend to pretend that the anxiety doesn’t exist. A more helpful approach would be to say: “You really don’t like it when Mom leaves. It makes you feel scared. As hard as it is, I know you can do it because you’ve done it before”. When reunited, talk to your child, ask him how his day went, and reaffirm his ability to cope. Tell him stories of when he did manage – not your perception of the experience, but only parts of the day that he has told you.

When to reach out for help

Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD) is a psychological condition characterised by excessive anxiety in children at the thought of separation from their caregivers or home, and causes more distress than would typically be expected. The symptoms usually appear during the preschool years, after a significant stressor, such as moving schools or home, or after a death, and can last up to a month.

Signs & symptoms of SAD

  • Look out for nightmares, refusing to sleep alone, headaches, and stomach aches.
  • Children may also fear harm befalling themselves or their parents during the separation, and may refuse to go to school or a childminder.
  • Your child may not display all the symptoms of childhood separation anxiety disorder, but if they persist, a psychologist with an interest in working with these issues, is recommended.

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