How To Help Your Kids Overcome Separation Anxiety

separation anxiety in children

Separation anxiety disorder (or SAD for short) seems to be on the increase.

The pandemic seems to have raised general stress levels, no matter your demographic. We cling to a place of safety and security and what better place than at home with the people we love?

In this post I want to explore separation anxiety in children and teens and look at some of the things we can do as parents to help our kids develop independence and confidently enter the Big Wide World.

What is separation anxiety?

According to psychoanalyst, John Bowlby, children are born biologically programmed to form strong attachments because this will help them to survive. (1)

Early in life we develop natural attachments to our primary carers (usually our parents). However, anything that threatens that attachment results in feelings of anxiety.

You know the scenario…

You leave the kids at nursery or school and a meltdown ensues. Or you’ve got a clingy teen who is frightened to let you out of their sight.

When children are frightened, they seek proximity from their primary caregiver in order to receive both comfort and care.

John Bowlby

For the child who suffers from separation anxiety, when you leave them it literally feels as if they are being abandoned. And in the long history of humanity, being abandoned usually led to death; anyone ostracised from the group wouldn’t last very long on their own.

It seems these fears are programmed into our DNA.

But if this is true, how come only some kids suffer from separation anxiety? Let’s look at what psychologists call ‘attachment theories’…

What is attachment theory?

John Bowlby’s attachment theory states that primary caregivers who are available and responsive to their child’s physical and emotional needs help to develop a sense of security in the child.

A strong bond is established, giving the child the confidence to later venture out into the world, away from the primary caregiver.

The infant learns that the caregiver is dependable, which creates a secure base for the child to then explore the world.

And according to the theories of Donald Winnicott and Wilfred Bion, it is the quality of the mother-child relationship that helps to develop this more secure attachment.

Winnicott’s ‘holding environment’ (2) and Wilfred Bion’s concept of ‘maternal reverie’ (3) highlight the importance of early bonding between caregiver and child.

As the parent of a child suffering from separation anxiety, both these concepts are worth studying. (Refer to the notes section below).

Types of attachment

So, let’s look at the possible affects of the parent/child bond. What type of attachment has your child developed?

The 4 most common attachment styles

  • Secure attachment can be observed when the parent leaves and returns to the child. The child will naturally show some distress upon being left by the parent (which is normal) and then show happiness and joy when the parent returns. It demonstrates that a strong bond has been developed – a secure attachment – between child and caregiver.
  • Kids who show signs of ambivalent attachment become very distressed when a parent leaves. This might be a result of the parent having been emotionally unavailable or an inability to emotionally bond with the child. The child learns that they cannot depend on their caregiver when they need them most.
  • Children with an avoidant attachment style tend to avoid their parents and show no preference between parents or complete strangers. This might be caused by abusive or neglectful parenting.
  • Then there is disorganised attachment where a child appears disoriented and confused. They may avoid or resist the parent. This attachment style is probably caused by inconsistent parental behaviour. In such cases, parents may serve as both a source of comfort and anxiety, leading to disorganized, confusing behaviour.
how to stop separation anxiety in children
Image: Hardcore Brain

Does separation anxiety improve with age?

Most separation anxiety wears itself out; the child learns over time that mum and/or dad do return and that they have not been abandoned forever.

However, in some kids, separation anxiety persists into their teenage years and even beyond. Indeed, some research suggests that if we don’t form secure attachments in childhood we may have a problem doing so throughout life. (4)

Evidence suggests that children who are securely attached as infants tend to develop stronger self-esteem and better self-reliance as they grow older. These children also tend to be more independent, perform better in school, have successful social relationships, and experience less depression and anxiety.

But it’s all well and good understanding these theories. The question is: What can I do to help my child now?

If your child goes into meltdown every time you drop them off at school what can you do? If they only feel safe in your presence (or in the home environment) and feel anxious when away from you, how can you help them develop their sense of autonomy?

The following points might be the first steps to help your child feel more secure…

What part do you play in your child’s separation anxiety?

One of the key things we can do as parents of children with separation anxiety is to help them develop independence. However, this is something that will take time and patience on your part. No child overcomes separation anxiety overnight.

So, how to proceed?

Let’s start off by asking what part you play in the dilemma.

Think about the following points…

  • Ask yourself how you feel when leaving your child. Are you upset, stressed, anxious etc? Often the child will pick up what you’re feeling and simply reflect that back at you. They feel what you feel.
  • Look at the home situation; is there stress in the home? Is your relationship with your partner healthy? What is the general atmosphere at home? All children need to feel safe and secure at home, free of threats, worries and insecurities as much as possible.
  • Has the child experienced trauma? Unresolved trauma will almost certainly raise anxiety in the child.
  • Is the child being bullied at school? Is there something about the place you’re leaving them that triggers fear in your child?
  • Are your child’s emotional needs met? Think about things like safety, attention, connection to others etc. Do an emotional needs audit for or with them (if the child is old enough to comprehend it). Unmet needs raise stress levels, ramping up feelings of anxiety.

Steps you can take to develop independence in your child

Identifying your part in the drama, doing an emotional needs audit, and dealing with traumas can have a huge impact on your child. But we also need to look at some behavioural techniques you can use right away.

Here are 5 things you can do to start to alleviate the emotional intensity…

  • When leaving your child act as normally as you can. This means no over-soothing, no over the top reassurances or long goodbyes. Simply say ‘bye’ and tell them at what time you’ll see them later then walk away. Or, as an alternative, find a way to distract them just before handing over to the teacher at school then simply creep away. This might sound harsh but the key thing is to try to lower the emotional arousal in yourself and the child.
  • Be true to your word; if you’ve said you’ll be back at 4pm make bloody sure you’re there!
  • Don’t over-reward the child for doing well. The whole point is to make being apart a non-event; time away from each other should (eventually) be seen as no big deal. Again, treat it as normal.
  • Find exceptions. When has your child been away from you and not shown anxiety? Nearly all kids experience times when they’re not anxious. What is different about such times?
  • Practice times away from each other and eventually increase the length in time. This can be aided by the use of relaxation techniques like 7/11 breathing and guided imagery where the child can mentally rehearse feeling relaxed during times apart.

Separation anxiety in your child – summary

Separation anxiety is something that is distressing for both child and parent. It’s never just the child’s issue.

By taking a holistic view of the situation – seeing what part you (and the family environment) play in your child’s anxiety – can lead to significant improvements.

All these methods take time but when you can change the way you affect the situation and apply some of the ideas in the list above you should begin to notice signs that your child is developing calm independence.

And if Bowlby’s theories are correct, we can expect that your child will segue into a ‘multiple attachment phase’, where they develop strong attachments to people beyond yourself as primary caregiver.

And that’s surely what we all want for our kids…

For them to spread their wings and fly.


I’d love to read your thoughts on this article. Please leave a comment below.

If you – or someone you know – needs professional help, just send me an email.

Notes

(1) John Bowlby and his theory of attachment https://www.verywellmind.com/john-bowlby-biography-1907-1990-2795514

(2) Winnicott’s ‘holding environment’ https://www.ukessays.com/essays/psychology/holding-and-containing-winnicott.php

(3) Bion’s concept of maternal reverie http://minnickskleinacademy.com/module-2/bions-mother-infant-model-for-creating-a-mental-apparatus/

(4) The importance of developing secure relationships in childhood https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15298868.2017.1353540?journalCode=psai20

Featured image source: Alex Yosifov

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