Separation Anxiety in Children

Separation Anxiety in Children

It is normal for young children to feel nervous when they can sense separation from their caregiver, after all it is in their instincts to attach to someone who can provide them warmth, proximity, care and protection. The purpose behind separation anxiety is to seek safety. Without these survival tactics, children will likely land themselves in dangerous situations.

The problem is not separation anxiety itself. It becomes an issue when these feelings of anxiety persist during situations which do not pose any threat to a child’s safety. During early childhood development, we learn that time apart from our caregiver is not permanent. For some children however, any physical separation or anticipation of separation from their caregiver can be very distressing. Tantrums, emotional outbursts, avoidance of activities that involve separation, physical symptoms of anxiety and disproportionate worries that something bad will happen whilst separated are common signs of separation anxiety. Adults can also develop separation anxiety with their child which is characterised by excessive worry over their child’s safety even if they are in another safe adult’s care.

separation anxiety

How to Manage Child Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety can be challenging to deal with however rest assured, there are several successful strategies that caregivers can implement to help their child feel calm and protected in periods of separation. It is important to recognise that physical closeness is not the only sign of feeling safe. When children become distressed when separated, many parents will naturally feel inclined to come to their rescue and enter their space. Whilst there are certainly times where this may be the appropriate response, it is important to remember that reinforcing this behaviour may lead your child to think that the only way to feel safe is to avoid being apart, making future separations more difficult.

Separation can be important as it provides opportunities for children to learn and develop skills on their own. For instance, children who feel safe to explore their surroundings without their caregiver are likely to develop confidence which can influence their self-esteem and shape their interactions with others throughout life.

Other strategies to help reduce separation anxiety in your child include:

  • Establishing consistency in routines and having quick ‘good-bye’ rituals can help your child understand what is happening. Sneaking away will only create more fear. Instead, try giving them a hug or using positive words of affirmation every morning before drop-off to help them adjust to the transition more easily.
  • Validating your child’s feelings can help them feel understood. For example, let them know that you understand why they may be finding a situation scary but that you will see them again soon. Helping them to acknowledge their strengths and encouraging them to do something fun while you are apart can help de-escalate meltdowns and make the transition smoother.
  • Practice spending some time apart. Whether this be creating opportunities for your child to spend time with other family members, playdates with friends or enrolling them in extra-curricular activities for an hour on the weekend.
  • Consider seeking professional help for yourself or your child. At Positive Mind Works, we have several psychologists who specialise in separation anxiety and parenting techniques.

If you would like to book an appointment with one of our psychologists who have much experience in child psychology, please contact us on 1800 327 477 (AU) or 0800 327 477 (NZ).