Separation anxiety, usually experienced in very young children, is when someone is afraid of being separated from an attachment person or figure. The person experiencing separation anxiety usually has a hard time being consoled and understanding the separation is temporary. If you are unsure if your child is experiencing this form of anxiety, ask yourself the following questions:
Is your Child Consistently or Excessively:
- Distressed when anticipating or experiencing separation from home or attachment figures?
- Worried about losing an attachment figure or possible harm to them by illness, accident, disasters, or death?
- Worried about experiencing an unexpected separation from an attachment figure (kidnapping, accident, becoming ill)?
- Refusing to go out or away from home, including to school or other activities, due to fear of separation?
- Scared of being alone or without attachment figures?
- Refusing to sleep away from home or go to sleep without being near an attachment figure? Sleeping with you nightly?
- Expressing nightmares about separation?
- Complaining of headaches, stomachaches, or vomiting/having diarrhea when away from or anticipating leaving attachment figures?
Another sign of anxiety is when a child constantly has questions about the caregiver’s actions, future events/plans, or questions revolving the separation.
Common Questions Asked by Children (and the reasons why!)
|Scenario||The Question||The Meaning|
|When you leave the room||"Where are you going?"||The child may be wondering if they could join you.|
|When you sneak out of their bedroom at bedtime||"Why are you leaving?"||The child may insist that you stay in bed with them until they fall asleep; this reduces the time they spend without you.|
|When you are asleep||*poke**poke* "Can I sleep with you?"||Even when they are sleeping, they want to feel you near them. They understand that it will be difficult for you to escape if they have their knees in your back.|
|When you go to the bathroom||“Are you going #1 or #2?”||The answer to this question tells the child how long they could expect you to be gone.|
|When you are on the phone||“Who are you talking to?”||The child may worry that their loved one is hurt or that an emergency is occurring. The child may wonder if you are going to have to leave or become agitated that you are sharing your attention with someone else.|
|On the way to school||“Who is picking me up? Where are we going tonight? What are we doing for dinner? Does my brother have baseball practice? Are you working 8-5 today?”||A child experiencing any kind of anxiety benefits from a plan; this helps them know ahead of time what to expect and eliminates surprises.|
|When they’re at school||“Will you come pick me up?”||You may frequently hear from the school nurse. If a person of any age is anxious, physical symptoms often occur. Plus, your child gets to call and check in with you during your time apart. A double whammy!|
The Bottom Line
Your child wants to be with you regardless of the circumstance. They experience heartache and legitimate stress when they are away from their caregiver.
Children experiencing separation anxiety may also attempt to control the environments or people around them. This provides the child with a sense of security and power over unexpected events. For example, refusing to do something like go to a friend’s house overnight allows them to call the shots.
While autonomy is important for children to experience, it is imperative that children are also healthily nudged to face fears and try things that seem scary.
The Balancing Act: How to Comfort your Child While Encouraging them to Enjoy Life
The answer is short: carefully and with a team. Loads are much easier to carry when the load is divided.
Luckily for you, there are things that you can teach at home to help continue therapeutic progress or even before your first therapy appointment!
Tips to Try Now
- Try to understand or identify the source of the anxiety. Often times, children have experienced some sort of permanent separation elsewhere that increases their worries that you may too disappear. Be ready to discuss this during your intake!
- Teach your child to calm themselves down. They need to learn to trust that they can respond to some of their own needs. Coping mechanisms can be taught, such as deep breathing to keep the body regulated or grounding techniques to elevate feelings of safety.
- Provide the child with schedule and routine (and when you must deviate from said schedule, give them as much warning as possible).
- Leave them notes in their lunchbox or in their backpack to remind them that you are still thinking of them while they are at school. You may also tell them at the end of the day something that made you think of them while they were away.
- Be informative about times when you are separating. For example, do not simply say, “I am going to the store.” You could say instead, “You are going to stay here with Aunt Aub while I go to the store. I plan to be back around 5:00 and if I am running late, I will call Aunt Aub.”
- Encourage, encourage, encourage. Start practicing when you get in the car headed towards the separation. For example, “Alright, so you’ve got a big day at school, huh? I know your teacher is going to be so happy to have you in class today. Do you think you and Cody might have a good conversation today in class? You’ve got so many people there that love to see you! How is Miss Hayley, your lunch lady, doing lately?” This also shows your child that you are aware of who they are with and trust them to be safe and nurturing caretakers in your place.
How Therapy Can Help
At Sunny Path Counseling, we will work with your family using CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and of course Play Therapy (see our parent’s guide to play therapy!). With CBT, we work to identify the triggers and source of the anxiety and then strive to implement coping skills. We start with simple but effective exercises and work towards more intricate ways to self regulate. We are also sensitive to this type of anxiety and understand that some children may want their caregivers to attend several sessions with them. We can work a plan together to wean the caregiver and child apart until the caregiver and child are both comfortable spending that hour apart.