Separation Anxiety

How to Deal with Separation Anxiety in Your Child

22 February 2022
Posted by: Chelsea

Separation anxiety is perfectly normal in younger children.

It can be seen in toddlers and there is some evidence that it arises even earlier than that when babies suddenly find they’re no longer in proximity to their primary care provider.

It’s difficult to generalise but in most cases, this reduces radically or might even have vanished entirely by the time your child is old enough to start full schooling around the ages of 5-7. However, in some instances, it might carry on longer.

What causes it?

Young children have an inbuilt survival instinct that means they will typically feel more secure when close to a parent or other known provider of care. By the same token, they may feel cautious or nervous when in the presence of relatively unknown people without their care provider.

The same also applies, to a lesser extent, to their surroundings. Younger kids will feel more comfortable if they are somewhere they’re familiar with rather than elsewhere – even sometimes if their parent or other care provider is also present.

All this is an animal survival instinct.

Growing and exploring

By contrast, another survival instinct is for children to look to explore, influence and eventually control, as much of the world around them as is possible. This often can’t be done unless they develop a degree of increasing independence and therefore confidence in separation.

For most children, the transition away from what was once called “hanging onto the apron strings” is a slow and gentle one that often begins in day-care centres and which increases slowly over time in the early schooling years.

Emotional distress

While it’s not unusual for very young children to be alarmed when they need to say goodbye to their normal care provider, even if for a very short time, it can be distressing for them and the adults involved.

There are some things you can do to minimise this:

  • familiarise your child with the person and environment they will be left with, before doing it for the first time ‘for real’. This usually means staying with them that first time. This is particularly important when starting school or a day-care centre;
  • assuming they’re old enough to understand, explain to them in advance what will happen and why – stressing you will always be back;
  • keep your absence very short to begin with then grow it over some time until it’s of normal duration;
  • ensure that wherever they’re being left will keep them fully occupied and attended to.

Problems

Although most children quickly adapt, some may have extended periods of distress and they might struggle to get over this as quickly as others.

Sometimes these problems can be predicted by behaviours in the home beforehand. For example, the toddler who cannot be separated from their care provider in another room, even if in their own home, might be highly likely to cope poorly with separation in a day-care centre.

By the age of around 5-7, if your child is still suffering major separation anxieties every morning at school then it might indicate that there is a problem requiring specialist advice.

There are many varied reasons why these extended problems can happen. The bereavement of a parent is one obvious example that might lead to severe separation anxiety in a younger child.

The good news is that some therapies and practices can help. Your doctor will advise further on how to access them.

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