Separation Anxiety: What it is and How to Help

“I don’t wanna go!”

Oh…it’s a dreaded battle!   Going off to summer camp, staying with a relative or starting a new school year can trigger some big emotions and behaviors in kids.

Many parents find their child’s anxiety overwhelming or embarrassing.

It creates family problems- even resentment.  Parents aren’t sure what to do.

Firm parenting can escalate things and a soft approach can perpetuate the problem.   Parents argue about who’s tactic is ‘best’ and it’s now an all-consuming issue!

SIGH…

Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is an issue that happens with lots of kids (and adults).  It’s the excessive fear or distress that can happen when kids think about separating from home or from the people they’ve become attached to.

In early years, separation anxiety is normal (even healthy).  This developmental anxiety usually ends at around age 2, when toddlers begin to understand that a parent may be out of sight right now but will return later.

As a disorder, separation anxiety happens when a child has more anxiety than the expected level for their age.

With a separation anxiety disorder, children may cling to their parents excessively, refuse to go to sleep without a caregiver, need someone with them at all times or be reluctant to attend camp or sleep at friends’ homes. Kids may also have physical symptoms such as headaches, nausea or tummy trouble.  They may have excessive worries, nightmares or irrational fears.

Separation anxiety disorder is the most prevalent anxiety disorder in children under the age of 12.

Diagnosed as a disorder, the symptoms must cause a problem in school, social or personal function.  In children, the anxiety symptoms would be present for at least 4 weeks and in adults at least 6 months.

How is Separation Anxiety Developed?

The cause of separation anxiety disorder is unknown, but there are some common threads.

  • Major stressors (such as a loss, divorce or disaster)
  • Overprotective or intrusive parenting
  • Inherited genetic or family patterns
  • Many cases have no known trigger

What you can do

Most parents feel overwhelmed by the issue, but the best gift you can give your child is a healthy parent.

So receive this as permission all you Moms, Dads, Grandparents and Caregivers… Take good care of yourself.  

Our brains have mirror neurons and our children are very sensitive to us by reflecting (mirroring) back what is modeled to them.

Many parents with anxious children struggle with anxiety themselves.  You may feel you can ‘hide’ this from your children, but you are fooling yourself. Just as you can feel the tension between two arguing people without being told about their tiff, your child can also feel your anxiety even when you try to hide it.

Healthy parental self-care is essential.

For older children and adults, counseling and changes in parenting approaches can also help.   I’ve written an article on helping children with anxiety with more information and helpful ideas.

For younger children, here are some tips:

  • Keep healthy snacks available (unstable blood sugar makes emotions difficult to handle…in other words, avoid ‘hangry’ moments)
  • Keep a routine or schedule.  When changes occur, help your child by keeping a calendar or making them part of managing the schedule.
  • Avoid overly processed foods or sugar.  These foods encourage inflammation in our body, which is associated with anxiety and depression.
  • Keep your child hydrated.
  • Have nighttime routines and limit screen time (particularly before bed).
  • Make sure your child is getting regular physical activity.
  • Treat the anxiety seriously and react with understanding, patience, and confidence: “I know you don’t want me to go away right now, but I will be back after school.” Do not tease or be unkind by saying things such as ‘Quit acting like a baby‘.
  • Stay calm and matter-of-fact.
  • Be flexible and firm.  Giving into your child’s anxiety will often make the problem worse, but being inflexible can escalate the issue and create a traumatic experience.  Stand firm, but think big picture and offer some flexibility where you can.
  • Communicate with your child’s teacher and show confidence to your child that you have trust in the school.
  • Give lots of love and attention. Young children learn faster when they receive necessary attention and affection.
  • Practice short-term separations and build up your child with positive reinforcement when they show independence.
  • Do not sneak away from your child. While tempting, this approach will lead to problems with trust and usually increase anxiety.
  • Role play upcoming scenarios like the start of school or a visit to Grandma’s.
  • Avoid over-labeling your child as anxious or giving too much attention to the anxiety.  What you feed grows and what you starve tends to wither.
  • Help your child with calm, deep breathing exercises.
  • Don’t feed into the negative anxiety-provoking thoughts, rather, help your child to redirect their thoughts more positively

Keep moving forward

Most importantly, just keep going…

As with most things, there is no magic or quick solution to ‘solve’ anxiety.   Focus on progress, not perfection and guide your child to make appropriately-sized steps in the right direction.

Breaking down these types of big issues can be overwhelming.  Sometimes seeking help from a professional such as a counselor or having an outside perspective can help.

I’ve also created a downloadable tool that can make it a lot easier.  Scroll below and it’s yours for free when you sign up for my monthly newsletter.

I wish you all the best…

Jenna

Jenna Fleming, LPC, NCCJenna Fleming is a licensed professional counselor serving kids, teens, and parents in Georgetown, TX.   She offers counseling servicescourses and classes to support families in getting on track and staying that way.