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What to Do if Your Child Has Separation Anxiety

As a parent of a child with separation anxiety, things can weigh on you very heavily. If you aren’t careful, you can end up bending your own life and schedule just to avoid upsetting your child. But eventually, this is something that has to be dealt with.

What is Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety in children is a normal developmental stage that typically occurs in babies and young children, often manifesting as distress and anxiety when they are separated from their primary caregivers, usually the parents. 

This form of anxiety is most common in children between the ages of 6 months and 3 years, though it can also be seen in older children up through the teenage years.

Symptoms of separation anxiety include:

  • Repeatedly asks questions about parent’s whereabouts
  • Refusal to take part in sleepovers, overnight camps
  • Pleads or bargains to remain close to parents
  • Resists participating in activities without a caregiver

It’s worth noting that separation anxiety is a normal part of childhood development. It indicates the development of strong attachments to caregivers, which is a critical aspect of healthy emotional development. However, when these fears become excessive and interfere with normal activities like school and play, it may be indicative of a more serious issue known as Separation Anxiety Disorder, which may require professional intervention.

In either case, handling separation anxiety involves patience, understanding, and consistent reassurance from caregivers, and often improves as children grow older and gain more independence.

Tips for Raising a Child With Separation Anxiety

As you raise a child with separation anxiety, it’s important that you work through it patiently and proactively. That might sound impossible, but there’s a certain finesse to it. You have to be patient – acknowledging that you can’t force a child to stop feeling separation anxiety – while also being proactive enough to address it head-on with practical tools and techniques. Here are a few of them:

  • Create routines. Children thrive on routine, and this is especially true for those with separation anxiety. A predictable schedule provides a sense of security and stability. Start by establishing regular times for meals, play, and bedtime. When your child knows what to expect, it can make separations feel less daunting. For example, a consistent morning routine that ends with a goodbye ritual can help your child adjust to your departure.
  • Gradually expose. Gradual exposure is key in managing separation anxiety. Start with short separations and gradually increase the time you’re away. This might begin with stepping into another room while your child is playing, then progressing to leaving them with a trusted caregiver for short periods. It’s essential to return when you say you will, reinforcing the idea that you’ll always come back. This approach helps build your child’s confidence and reduces their anxiety over time.
  • Foster open communication. Encourage your child to express their feelings and fears. Let them know it’s okay to feel anxious and that you’re there to listen. This doesn’t mean you must fix everything; often, just being heard can be incredibly comforting for a child. Use language appropriate for their age to explain where you’re going and why. Understanding the situation can help demystify your absence and make it less scary.
  • Practice positive reinforcement. When your child handles a separation well, acknowledge their effort and bravery. This can be through verbal praise, a hug, or a small reward. Positive reinforcement encourages your child to continue facing their fears. It’s also crucial to focus on the effort rather than the outcome; even if the separation was challenging, praise their effort in trying.
  • Prepare for separation. Preparation can make separations smoother. Before you leave, spend quality time with your child. This could be playing a game, reading a book, or simply talking. Let them know when you’ll be leaving and when you’ll return. Having a special goodbye ritual, like a secret handshake or a special phrase, can also provide comfort.

Setting Your Child Up for Success

As a parent, you can’t control how your child feels in every situation. You can, however, acknowledge how they feel and give them some practical tools and techniques for how to handle various situations. 

Hopefully, this article has provided some strategies for leaning in and patiently yet proactively helping your child address their separation anxiety. At the end of the day, that’s all you can do!

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