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5 Ways to Help Your Child with Separation Anxiety

Mom saying good-bye to babysitter and little boy.

Have you ever had a difficult time leaving your child with a babysitter, or perhaps during the morning drop off at school? Has your child ever clung to you, begged you to stay by their side, or cried when you went to leave?

If yes, you are not alone. Many children struggle with separation from their parents. Separation anxiety can happen at any age. There are many reasons why children may struggle with separating from their parents.  It is important for parents to recognize this type of behavior early on and to take action.

If your child is having a tough time separating from you here are five ways you can help:

  1. Keep goodbyes short. You can give your child a hug or kiss and let them know when you will be seeing them again. By keeping the goodbye brief and remaining calm, you will not only be modeling good, calm behavior for your child, but you will also be preventing a long drawn-out, difficult goodbye. Longer goodbyes can be more difficult because they prolong the length of time children and parents feel distressed.
  2. Develop a goodbye ritual with your child. Rituals are like routines. Children respond well when they know what to expect and when to expect something. A ritual can provide your child with the signal you are saying goodbye. It can also help the goodbye feel safe and predictable. A goodbye ritual could be as simple as a hug and a kiss. It could also be a funny saying you have with your child such as, “see you in a while crocodile.”
  3. Keep the surroundings for your child familiar whenever possible. Have a sitter come to your home to sit for your child when you go out. If your child is going to a new place and will be separating from you, have him bring a familiar object along, such as a favorite teddy bear.
  4. Have your babysitter maintain your child’s predictable routine. Maintaining your child’s routine while you are gone will help her adjust to the new person. It will also help your child feel more safe and secure.
  5. Follow through with promises you have made to your child. For example, return when you promised you would and avoid “sneaking out.” Following through with promises and being honest with your child will instill confidence in them. It will also help you and your child build a trusting relationship.

At what point should I consider seeking professional help for my child for their separation anxiety?

Having some separation anxiety as a child can be normal, but there are signs to look for to know if it is a larger problem. If your child experiences three or more of the problems listed below, consistently, for four weeks or more, it may be time to seek professional help:

  • the child has reoccurring distress when anticipating or experiencing separation from parents or main caregiver
  • the child consistently worries that something bad or dangerous will happen to their parents or main caregiver
  • the child has a reoccurring worry that something bad will happen to them (such as getting kidnapped, having an accident, becoming ill etc.) and this will cause separation from their parents or main caregiver
  • the child does not want to leave home, refuses to go to school or to other places that would cause separation from their parents or main caregiver
  • the child has a consistent fear of being alone in their own home or in other settings without their parents or main caregiver
  • the child refuses to sleep away from home and/or needs to sleep near to or in the same bed with their parents or caregivers
  • the child has repeated nightmares about being separated from their parents or main caregiver
  • the child complains of physical symptoms such as stomachaches, headaches, or nausea when separated from their parents or main caregiver

A note about the author:

Tristan Ford-Hutchinson, MPS, LAPC, ATR-BC, CCLS is an art therapist and counselor at Peachtree Art Therapy and Counseling who specializes in working with children, young adults and families. Email Tristan Ford-Hutchinson or visit her website to learn more.

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