Helping Children Cope with Separation Anxiety

Helping Children Cope with Separation Anxiety

Helping Children Cope with Separation Anxiety 612 408 Dr. Terry

When you try to head out for work or even to run errands, your child is sulking, throwing tantrums, and doing his/her best to keep you from leaving the house. Now that you’ve returned to your office and your kid may be left at home or is going back to school, it’s understandable for everyone to feel more anxious than usual. What’s happening with your usually cheerful child? 

The COVID-19 pandemic and the disrupted family routines

When the COVID-19 pandemic started more than two years ago, most schools and businesses transitioned to online learning and a work-from-home setup. Many parents had to find the balance between catering to their family’s needs and working productively during lockdowns. The ‘new normal’ has also provided a rare opportunity for them to spend more time with their loved ones. Parents have experienced beautiful, everyday moments that they used to miss–like eating meals together, enjoying extra snuggle time, or being present while their children play. Children, especially the young ones, have likely benefited from the extra time at home with their parents with whom they have formed a strong bond called “secure attachment”.

Now that things have slowly shifted back to how they were pre-pandemic, parents have returned to in-person work and left their kids at home. Other children have returned to their school campuses for the first time in years.

These are, indeed, big changes that have disrupted established family routines. 

Dealing with separation anxiety

The change of pace is bringing up anxiety for many kids. This may be expressed through crying, throwing tantrums, increased clinginess to parents, and resisting other caregivers. Spending the entirety of lockdown with just the parents may ramp up their separation anxiety. This is the anxiety that children may feel about being separated from their parents or leaving home, which they have considered safe during a stressful time. Nonetheless, parents must realize that separation anxiety in children is a normal and healthy phase.

Separation anxiety in children

Children usually develop separation anxiety between 8 and 12 months old, and most of them outgrow this by about 3 years of age. Around this age, babies start to form strong attachments with their parents or primary caregiver. They begin to differentiate them from those they are not familiar with. Separation anxiety is a sign that your child is well-bonded with you. However, preschoolers and older children who have moved past this stage might revert to it. Parents need to reassure their kids that they are safe and loved to help them gradually increase their independence.

Here are some helpful tips for managing separation anxiety:

  • Validate and help them understand their feelings. Initiate conversations with your child about their feelings. Acknowledge that the transition can be challenging for your child and let him/her know that it is normal to feel anxious.
  • Set a predictable routine. Children find comfort in familiar activities. Routines can help your kids feel safe, less anxious, and more focused. You can do this by creating a scheduled time for meals, play, and bedtime.
  • Spend sufficient bonding time. Find a time each day to bond with your child. You can feed or bathe him/her before leaving. You can also get your child excited about playing or watching TV together when you’re home from work.
  • Practice being away from each other. Leave your child alone with people he or she is familiar with–their grandparents, a friend or relative, or a nanny–while keeping it short but in increasing amounts of time. This can be a good way for your child to prepare for the separation.
  • Keep goodbyes short and positive. Don’t leave without telling your child, but don’t make the process long and unbearable either. Keep the atmosphere cheerful by looking relaxed and assuring your child that you’ll see each other later. Your child will most likely feel more anxious if he or she sees you worrying as well.
  • Encourage independence through praise or reward. It’s important to encourage independence and give your children opportunities where they can be in control. This can be done through simple tasks like brushing their teeth or playing independently. Children will be motivated to continue with their good behavior if you praise or reward them.
  • Maintain regular communication. You can call your children from time to time to ask about their day and how they’re feeling. Setting a predictable time for this will also help. Video calls also help so they can see and hear you. This will assure them that being away does not mean you won’t be there for them. 

When separation anxiety becomes a disorder

If your child is still struggling even after trying these ideas, he/she may be experiencing a more serious condition called separation anxiety disorder. In this case, children exhibit more extreme responses, such as being agitated at just the thought of being away from you, having repeated nightmares, and refusing to sleep alone. They may also avoid going to school or interacting with other children. Having a separation anxiety disorder can even cause physical illnesses, such as headaches, stomachaches, or vomiting. When symptoms have interfered with daily functioning or last longer than two weeks, these anxieties can add up to a disorder. 

You can help by seeking an evaluation as soon as possible. Early diagnosis and treatment can lessen symptoms and prevent the disorder from getting worse. It can also improve your child’s quality of life.

Let Thrive Collective walk with you through this big transition.

Dr. Menon and Dr. Terry have the expertise to evaluate and treat a range of psychological and behavioral problems in children, adolescents, and adults. They can provide additional strategies and needed support to help parents and their children cope with separation anxiety and other problems. If you’re wondering how to get started, reach out to schedule a free phone consultation.