Separation anxiety is a common form of anxiety in children but is really hard on both parent and child. There is nothing worse than having your child clinging to you desperately as you try to leave them. Just about everywhere in the world children are going back to school, preschool or day care. That in itself can cause anxiety, but the anxiety levels of the world are still so high. Not only do children have the stress of leaving their parent (which is hard enough) but they have the added pressure of trying to avoid Covid. They can’t play the same, work the same and their teachers may have their faces covered so they can’t see their reassuring smile. Separation anxiety is fuelled by the child experiencing a new environment, new people and not understanding why their parent has to go. All of these are normal reasons to be anxious. Now add the multitude of changes due to Covid and it is no wonder separation anxiety is such a big issue at the moment.
We have anxiety for a reason, to protect us from threats. Our brain registers a threat and will try and protect us by sending us into a fight/flight/freeze response. If this anxiety is intense, it will be triggered every time we are in that similar situation. So, in the case of a child, it can be triggered every time their parent leaves resulting in separation anxiety. If we want to help our children work through this, we need to consider how the brain works. If your child is distressed, that is not the time to try and reason with them. When we are in a state of anxiety we are in fight/flight/freeze mode, there is no logical thinking going on, that part of the brain is not working, it’s focus is on survival and nothing else. This is why they may seem to have super human strength as they grip onto you for dear life. They can’t hear you say, “you will have fun, your friends are here, you like your teacher”. All they know is that their safe person is leaving and they can’t let that happen.
We need to change that trigger response in the brain and that won’t happen instantly. Just like when we learn anything, we need to do something over and over before we learn how to do it. In terms of separation anxiety, when they are triggered, they need to go through the emotion until there is calm again so the brain no longer registers this as a threat. If when our child is triggered, we just take them and leave, the brain has made a pathway that says – parent is leaving, - distress – parent won’t go - so I am safe. In an attempt to help we actually make their anxiety worse. So how do we help? Calm, Validate and Problem Solve.
The first thing we need to do is help calm. The brain can’t think and it definitely can’t learn if they are distressed. You know your child and what will work to help them calm, it might be a hug or letting them sit away from everyone. The most important thing is that they need a calm adult with them. We know that nervous systems will “mirror” those around them, they will literally match the arousal level of others. This is why it is so important that we remain calm. You could try doing some controlled breathing with your child. If they don’t want to do it, then you do it, it will still help.
Validating how your child is feeling is so important. If we try and talk our children out of their feelings, they just think that we don’t understand and the anxiety will "fight" more to be heard. However, if we acknowledge it such as “I get it. It can be scary to leave mum”, what is happening is that they feel understood and that you are on their side. This will also help calm the brain as they feel that they don’t have to “fight” alone. You don’t have to agree with your child but you do have to try and acknowledge how they are feeling.
Once they are calm and feel supported, they are ready to problem solve with you. It is so important to have them involved in this process. Work out together what they could do to cope. It definitely helps to have some plans worked out together ahead of time. Talk to them at home when they are calm and work out together some things that they can do when they feel anxious about you leaving.
Here are a few ideas.
1. Give your child something of yours
I often suggest that a parent give their child something that is significant. Maybe a necklace, a scarf, a special rock or crystal, anything that the child knows is important to the parent. The idea is that you let the child use it only while you are apart, then when you return, they have to give it back to you. The child knows that the object is important and that you will return for it. Now a lot of parents are upset by this because obviously your child is more precious than the object and surely, they know that you will come back for them rather than just the object. But that's not really what it is about. The object is a simple visual reminder that you will return. Also, by giving them something special you are also showing that you trust them and that they are mature enough to look after it. This in itself helps to build confidence.
2. Keep a picture of a fun time
Having a special place to imagine is a really useful relaxation technique. However, when a child is young or in the middle of anxiety it can be hard to focus on this in their imagination. Before the separation talk to your child about their favourite place or holiday. Find a photo or something that reminds them of that place.
Use the photo or object to practice relaxation regularly at home. Talk to them about what it was like, what they enjoyed. Talk to them about what it looked like. What were the sounds? If it was the ocean then have them remember the sounds of the ocean. What did it smell like or where their memorable tastes? By doing this you are connecting them with a happy relaxing memory. When we connect with enjoyable memories our body will naturally relax.
Have your child take the photo with them. When they are feeling anxious or worried, they can look at the photo and connect with that emotion again. Now I'm not saying that you will turn up to preschool/school and as you leave pull out the photo and all will be okay. They will still be anxious; they may still be a distressed. But if you do this ahead of time and involve them in the process then at least they will have a plan. By doing this you are acknowledging that you understand that they are anxious, you are showing that you understand that it is hard but together you will be able to make it work.
3. Have a Step Plan
If you know your child has trouble separating from you then start small. But PLEASE involve your child in the process. You need them to start to feel some control in this process. Talk to them about different situations where they separate from you and how scared they would feel. Which is scarier, staying home with the other parent or staying a grandma's? Grandma's during the day or in the evening? Start by practicing the least scary. When they try, talk to them about what helped and what was hard. Tell them how proud you are of them. Make a plan for the next time they will try. Make sure you are moving with the plan too. So many times, I see parents hanging around at schools till the very last minute. If you don't move with the plan as well your child will be stuck in this stage of anxiety.
4. Social Stories
Social stories are really helpful for a child to understand what they can expect will happen in a situation. They can be really fun to make and by doing this with your child you can see the experience from their perspective and give them some control.
Social stories are pretty simple to write. Start by saying where they are going. For example, "on Mondays I go to preschool". Then write something about the preschool and perhaps their teacher. Write that mum/dad will have to leave but that is okay because they always come back. Write what happens during the day at preschool, write the normal routine. Don't try and rush it. Do it with as much detail as they need. Make sure you acknowledge how they feel. Write for example "sometimes I feel sad when mummy leaves". Then make sure you add what they can do if they feel this way. "If I feel sad I can......". Finish the book by saying at the end of the day mum or dad will come and pick me up. Have your child draw the pictures or at least pick photos to use in the book to given them a sense of ownership of the book.
Routine and rituals give a sense of security and safety. If you have a specific ritual, particularly around saying goodbye, this will help your child know what to expect and relieve some of the anxiety. Rituals could be, having a special handshake, a kiss on each hand or a phrase such as "see you later alligator".
Most importantly, remember that getting through separation anxiety is a process, there is no instant cure. But if you remember to help your child Calm, Validate the emotions and Problem- solve together, then you can reduce the trigger and they will eventually come through the anxiety. You have them involved in every part of the process to overcome the anxiety. Nobody will change if they have change forced on them, they need to feel that they have some control and that you are there to support and guide them along the way.