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. Separation Anxiety is fueled 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. Unfortunately for a child, if this anxiety is intense it will be triggered every time their parent leaves resulting in Separation Anxiety.
There are things that you can do to help your child calm and break the pattern of separation anxiety.
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.
Before talk to them about the memory they have chosen. Using the photo or object, 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 there 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 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. This might take a few practice runs first. Try by starting with short separations and using the photo first before you use it for preschool or school.
3. Have a Step Plan
If an adult has a Phobia of spiders, you would not ask them to pick up a spider to overcome the fear. You would start slowly with photos etc. and as the fear for the photo decreases you then increase the exposure. If we do this for adults, why to we expect kids to separate from their safe person, stay with strangers and be fine until hours later? When you think about it, it is ridiculous.
If you know your child has trouble separating from you then start small. I have seen children who struggled to be even in the next room from their parent. So 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. So 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.
Remember after each try, praise them for being brave. 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 they 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".
Really it is all trial and error. I find the most important thing is to talk to your child. Find out what they are most afraid of. What do they want to happen. Explain why you need to separate and what could be good. Then 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.