Separation anxiety is a normal part of childhood. But for some kids, normal becomes abnormal when separating from their parent is accompanied by deep distress, discomfort, is recurrent, and the reaction is severe. School age children in particular can have debilitating separation anxiety. Read below for the top 12 techniques you can use to help ease the worry for a smoother transition.
Before the Separation
Discuss your child’s concerns before the separation. If you wait until your child is in full blown anxiety mode, his sole focus will be on convincing you to not separate from him. Put aside some time for the two of you to talk about his concerns. Once your child is done venting, the two of you can focus on problem solving.
Help your child relax: Breathing techniques and muscle relaxation exercises can help calm the nerves. In essence, it can prepare the brain to “think straight” so your child can start thinking through the situation logically. This enables your child to have more control in the situation.
Review with your child a successful separation. These are called “exception moments,” a time when the problem wasn’t a problem. Encourage your child to focus on the success, even the smallest one. Dialogue about what worked in that situation, and see if the two of you can brainstorm and apply it to what’s bothering him right now.
Help your child examine his thinking. Sometimes children need help looking at things in a difference way. Back in the 90’s there were a number of airplane crashes that occurred together in a short period of time. I was 10 and my parents often flew, either for work or to see relatives. I was terrified my parents would die. An adult in my life told me “Wouldn’t it be great if the news told us the number of planes who made it safely to their destination, instead of the number who didn’t?” Talk about a shift in thinking! I wasn’t told to “just think positive,” but this sound argument allowed me to do so. I still think about it to this day.
Play the “what is” game not the “what if” game. This encourages your child to focus on reality versus having his mind spin out of control. Kids often worry about their parents dying or being injured and that’s why they fear separation. So, for example, if your child is worried you are going to die on your way to work, discuss all the things you know that contradicts the idea that you will die. For instance, you might want to discuss how you’re a safe driver, you wear a seat belt, you go the speed limit, you always look both ways at an intersection, and so on and so on.
During the Separation
Prepare your child with warnings. Never walk out without saying goodbye. Sneaking out can increase your child’s anxiety because it establishes the belief that you can and will leave at any time. This could increase mistrust and clingy behavior.
Create a goodbye routine. Rituals can be very comforting. Just like a bedtime routine to ease your child to sleep, a goodbye routine can help ease the transition. The ritual can be a specific phrase, a special hug, a fist bump, or a combination of all three! Create it with your child for maximum effectiveness.
Give something of yours for your child to keep while you’re away. These can be nice reminders that allow your child to go about his day. One mom I knew gave her daughter an angel pin. A dad gave his son a handkerchief with his cologne on it. The idea is that it’s not intrusive or obvious, but something private between the two of you.
Be specific about return times. “I’ll be back after lunch” may not be specific enough for your child. That could mean to him 12:01pm but to you it might mean 2 or 3pm. This could mean hours of needless anxiety for your child. Whatever time you say, stand by it. If you’re going to be late, get a message to your child.
Be compassionate and firm. Your emotions, (sadness, frustration) influences your child’s behavior. Your words and tone should convey that you believe in your child and his ability to separate. Stay calm and resolute. If your child sees you wavering, that can cause him to up the ante. If you stay away from lingering goodbyes, it will show your child you trust who you’re leaving him with, and that he should too.
After the Separation
Allow check-ins by phone. Some kids benefit from a mid-day or mid-weekend check-in. This is extremely important in situations of divorce when your child is at your co-parent’s house. A quick call, no more than 5 or 10 minutes, can help reassure your child and give him the boost to make it through until he transitions back to you.
Praise your child for trying. Do this no matter what, even if your child had a meltdown. If your child can begin to feel confident in his ability to separate, then the symptoms will start to disappear. When you return say to your child how brave he was, how proud you are, and that you knew he could do it. Don’t go overblown, make it calm and natural. If you believe in your child, your child will start to believe in himself.
Bottom line: Separation anxiety is no joke. It is exhausting and frustrating for both you and your child. But there is so much in your control that you can do to help your child feel more control.
Please comment below: What have you done to help your child with separation anxiety? What worked and what didn’t? What strategies would you add to the list?
Jenmarie Eadie is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who is passionate about helping children to become less stressed by giving them and their parents tools, support and encouragement. She received her Master’s in Social Work from Arizona State with a dual concentration in Children, Youth, and Families; and Behavioral Health.