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Letting Go Of Separation Anxiety

And What To Do If It Becomes A Disorder

Black and white portrait of  young Caucasian woman mother comforting her crying little toddler boy son outside in park on summer day, dealing with separation anxiety

The door opened and up the stairs trudged Mom with the little preschooler in her arms. She’d make him walk, but then they wouldn’t have made it this far if she had. Buried into her neck, Mom could feel the wetness from his tears. The separation anxiety has hit. Setting him down, she peeled his winter coat off of Andrew and then ushered him to the bathroom to wash his hands before entering the class.

She tried to step away while he washed but he cried out for her not to leave his side. Andrew grappled the paper towel around his little hands over and over although they had long since dried. The next step was the big one. The one he dreaded every morning of preschool. Time for Mommy to leave.

He didn’t want to go to school. He told his Mommy that every day, but she never seemed to believe him. Every time he said “I don’t want to go,” Mom would reply, “Yes, but you never want to leave either, when it’s time to pick you up!”

This morning he had a tummy ache, just like the morning before, and the morning before that. Andrew didn’t know why he had stomach aches before preschool. And he didn’t know why he didn’t have them on the weekends. All he knew is that his tummy hurt and he dreaded watching Mommy walk out the preschool door.

Separation Anxiety

Tearing yourself away from your child at school drop off can pull at your heartstrings as nothing else can. It can leave you questioning your parenting skills and have you wondering if you’re permanently screwing up your kid by leaving them.

If you’ve had this experience with your child and all the subsequent feelings that come along with it, YOU ARE NOT ALONE. Separation anxiety is a common and normal occurrence, especially in younger aged children.

When separation anxiety becomes intense and prolonged, however, separation anxiety can turn into separation anxiety disorder. So how do you tell the difference? According to mental wellness resource Psycom, the following symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder last a minimum of four weeks, cause significant distress, and may impair family relationships :

Children and adolescents with Separation Anxiety Disorder experience at least three of the following symptoms:

  • Recurrent excessive distress when anticipating or experiencing separation from home or attachment figures (parents or other caregivers)
  • Persistent and excessive worry about losing an attachment figure or possible harm to them by illness, accident, disasters, or death
  • Persistent worry about experiencing an unexpected separation from an attachment figure (kidnapping, accident, becoming ill)
  • Refusal to go out or away from home, including to school or other activities, due to fear of separation
  • Excessive fear of being alone or without attachment figures
  • Refusal to sleep away from home or go to sleep without being near an attachment figure
  • Nightmares about separation
  • Physical complaints including headaches, stomachaches, and/or vomiting when away from attachment figures

Whether your child is struggling with separation anxiety or full-blown separation anxiety disorder, Helpguide.org offers some concrete steps you can take to help your child cope and make the entire experience much less traumatic.

Family happy mother mom send children kid son boy kindergarten to school, education back - using routine to work through separation anxiety

How to ease “normal” separation anxiety

For children with normal separation anxiety, there are steps you can take to make the process of separation anxiety easier.

Practice separation. Leave your child with a caregiver for brief periods and short distances at first. As your child gets used to separation, you can gradually leave for longer and travel further.

Schedule separations after naps or feedings. Babies are more susceptible to separation anxiety when they’re tired or hungry.

Develop a quick “goodbye” ritual. Rituals are reassuring and can be as simple as a special wave through the window or a goodbye kiss. Keep things quick, though, so you can:

Leave without fanfare. Tell your child you are leaving and that you will return, then go—don’t stall or make it a bigger deal than it is.

Follow through on promises. For your child to develop the confidence that they can handle separation, it’s important you return at the time you promised.

Keep familiar surroundings when possible and make new surroundings familiar. Have the sitter come to your house. When your child is away from home, encourage them to bring a familiar object.

Have a consistent primary caregiver. If you hire a caregiver, try to keep them on the job long term to avoid inconsistency in your child’s life.

Minimize scary television. Your child is less likely to be fearful if the shows you watch are not frightening.

Try not to give in. Reassure your child that they will be just fine—setting consistent limits will help your child’s adjustment to separation.

boy riding on mother's back - balancing separation anxiety
Photo by Jenn Evelyn-Ann on Unsplash

Helping a child with separation anxiety disorder

Educate yourself about separation anxiety disorder. If you learn about how your child experiences this disorder, you can more easily sympathize with their struggles.

Listen to and respect your child’s feelings. For a child who might already feel isolated by their disorder, the experience of being listened to can have a powerful healing effect.

Talk about the issue. It’s healthier for children to talk about their feelings—they don’t benefit from “not thinking about it.” Be empathetic, but also remind your child—gently—that they survived the last separation.

Anticipate separation difficulty. Be ready for transition points that can cause anxiety for your child, such as going to school or meeting with friends to play. If your child separates from one parent more easily than the other, have that parent handle the drop off.

Keep calm during separation. If your child sees that you can stay cool, they are more likely to be calm, too.

Support the child’s participation in activities. Encourage your child to participate in healthy social and physical activities. They’re great ways to ease anxiety and help your child develop friendships.

Praise your child’s efforts. Use the smallest of accomplishments—going to bed without a fuss, a good report from school—as reason to give your child positive reinforcement.

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