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How to stop separation anxiety in children

9Coach logo 9Coach 15/05/2018

Mother consoling unhappy 4 year old daughter © Getty Mother consoling unhappy 4 year old daughter You’re pulling up to your child’s school, when it happens: the tears, the tug on your leg, the refusal to leave. 

You know your child is distraught, but you’re frustrated, too — it’s time to get to work or an appointment.

Sometimes you just don’t have an extra half hour to keep them company as they acclimate to another day without you.

From ages six months to about two years old, when separation anxiety in children is most common, this is a familiar scenario for most parents. Making matters worse, it can be difficult to tamp down your own feelings of insecurity or frustration in the moment. 

While anxiety might be part of your child’s day, learning how to go to school, deal with strangers, or even attend a friend’s birthday party is part of socialising and growing up.

That’s why parents should learn strategies that help their children confront anxiety rather than avoid it, suggests Andrea Chronis-Tuscano, a psychology professor at the University of Maryland.

“Letting those kids escape those situations, there is short-term gain and long-term pain,” explained Chronis-Tuscano to The Wall Street Journal. “Other kids are learning how to navigate those social situations, but the kids who are avoiding them are also lagging behind. That is going to make them even less comfortable in the future.”

Thankfully, there are strategies that can help children deal with their separation anxiety in productive and healthy ways. Here’s how to stop separation anxiety in children without giving them an easy out — or ignoring their feelings.

What separation anxiety in children looks like

Separation anxiety in children is common from the age of six-and-a-half months up to the age of four — even in everyday scenarios like school drop-off, playing in the park, meeting strangers, or attending a party.

“As they don’t yet have a separate sense of self, babies see their parents or carers as part of themselves and feel a part of them is missing when they are apart,” explain the experts at KidsMatter, a mental health resource for parents funded by the Australian government. “Older children have developed a separate sense of self and therefore have a greater understanding their parents or carers will return.”

Common signs of separation anxiety include:

  • shyness
  • crying
  • screaming or throwing tantrums
  • refusing to leave parent
  • pretending to be sick

And they can arise for any number of reasons, from entering a new phase of childhood development (like recognising faces) to experiencing a change in environment (like a new sibling entering the family or meeting a new caregiver).

The most important thing to remember as a parent is that every child goes through some form of separation anxiety, and you can teach them healthy coping mechanisms for addressing their fears.

What to do when separation anxiety strikes

While separation anxiety might not look or feel logical to the adults in the room, trying to reason your child out of their fears won’t work.

Instead, psychotherapist Tamar E. Chansky suggests trying some of the following tactics to stop separation anxiety in the moment:

  • Express empathy. Acknowledge that your child is scared and tell them that you understand how they’re feeling.

  • Address your child’s anxiety together. Put words to the anxiety by drawing out what’s bothering them. Then you can shift the focus away from a worrisome activity and toward anxiety itself, says Chansky.

At The Huffington Post, psychiatrist Vanessa Lapointe also suggests avoiding systems of rewards or consequences. While it might be tempting to reward your child for painless goodbyes, this reinforces the idea that anxiety is controllable.

“It is an instinctual reaction from the survival centre of the brain and is highly alarming for the child in an utterly consuming way,” explains Lapointe.

Instead, focus on talking your child through their fears and model positive, confident behaviours that they can pick up on to lessen their anxiety.

How to fend off separation anxiety

In addition to helping your child confront separation anxiety when it happens, there are strategies you can use as a parent to stop separation anxiety in the future, too.

One of the biggest steps to take is to consider your own manifestations of anxiety, says Jennifer Hudson, a professor at the Centre for Emotional Health at Macquarie University.

“For parents who experience excessive worry and anxiety, their worry can often extend to worrying about their children or worrying about what other people think of their parenting or their child,” Hudson explained to HappyChild, a parenting website.

In addition to managing your own symptoms of discomfort, consider the following tried-and-true tips from behavioural experts:

  • Talk to your child about what to expect. Simply running through your child’s schedule — including when you will drop them off and pick them up — can help alleviate anxiety. You can even role-play, suggests Lori Lite, founder of Stress-Free Kids, at Parenting.

  • Help your child build connections with the adults in charge. It can take time for your child to develop a positive relationship with another adult, like a teacher or the parent hosting a birthday party. But you can help your child build those relationships by modelling good behaviour, says Lapointe.

  • Be confident. Your own confidence and self-assurance will work wonders. Children pick up on your positivity and begin to feel more confident, too. Dr William Sears calls this being a “strong attachment figure.”

Dealing with separation anxiety in children is never easy, but by focusing on a few changeable behaviours, you’ll get the knack of it in no time.

When to get help for your child’s separation anxiety

Although separation anxiety in children is common, how much is too much? And when is it time to ask an expert to intervene?

According to Lapointe, if your child’s separation anxiety intensifies over time, it may be time to see a behavioural therapist.

“In selecting somebody for that role, make sure they have a strong understanding of child development and that they are prepared to work together with you - the expert on your child - leading the way,” Lapointe suggests at Huffington Post.

Seek help if you notice that your child’s anxiety:

  • lasts for more than the first month at a new school
  • changes their other behaviours or their personality
  • makes them reluctant to play or join in social activities
  • disrupts their sleep

Some of these behaviours may signal a larger issue, like depression or an anxiety disorder. Positive interventions, like talk therapy or extra support in school, can help your child address any larger issues at the root and live an engaged, happy, social life.

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