Jul 03 , 2020

Helping Kids Cope With Separation Anxiety

Goodbyes are never easy for little kids and their parents. When it’s time to start a new day at preschool kids will often cry, scream, and just beg for you not to leave them at a strange and unfamiliar place. There’s no need to fret too much, though. Separation anxiety is a perfectly normal and manageable part of early childhood development.

All kids experience some form of separation anxiety during early childhood. Some kids may begin to fret and cling to you before their first birthday, while others will only begin to show distress during their first day of preschool. It’s important to help kids deal with these new feelings so that they don’t get eaten by stress or shy away from becoming independent later on.

When does separation anxiety start?

At around 8 months your baby will begin to form strong attachments to his caregivers and learn about object permanence (knowing that something exists even when you can’t see it). As a result, your baby might experience some form of separation anxiety between 8 and 14 months of age. You’ll need to stick to a routine and not stray from your baby for far too long.

Other kids may only begin to experience separation anxiety at 15 to 18 months of age. It’s much easier for toddlers to find out when you aren’t there, so crying and other signs of distress may be more frequent and harder to deal with during this time. Separation anxiety may also become worse when your toddler is hungry, tired, or stressed.

Separation anxiety is more intense and common among preschoolers. Most kids understand how their behavior affects their parents and other caregivers at this age. As a result, many preschoolers will try to make things go their way by crying and throwing tantrums. The best way to cope with separation anxiety during this stage is to simply be consistent and stick to your guns. Changing your plans every time your child throws a tantrum may only encourage dependency and negative behavior in them.

Strategies for dealing with separation anxiety

Dealing with separation anxiety isn’t easy at all. You might even feel frustrated at having to deal with intense crying and screaming at your front door. There’s no need to fret too badly, though. You can try using these strategies to ease separation anxiety in your kids:

1. Come up with quick goodbye rituals

Developing a special ritual will make it easier for your little one to say goodbye. You can let your child know that you’ll be gone for a while through quick and simple actions, such as a high-five or special handshake. Remember to keep things short and simple while doing this, though. Lingering around or coming back for a bit may make it harder for your child to deal with their separation anxiety.

If it’s time for your child to enter preschool you can make the transition much easier for them by giving them “love notes”. Try to sneak in meaningful drawings or brief notes into their lunch boxes or bags. This will help reassure and comfort them while they spend time navigating a new place.

2. Attend to their needs first

Little kids and babies tend to experience intense separation anxiety when they’re tired, hungry, or agitated. It’s better to spend time away from your kids after they’ve been fed, well-rested, changed, and relaxed. If your kids are attending preschool, prepare their snacks and other essentials as soon as you can to avoid any unneeded delays or exhaustion.

3. Maintain consistency

Kids thrive on consistent routines. Be sure to do the same rituals with your little one at the same time every day. That way, it will be easier for them to say goodbye and trust that you’ll come back. If you come back for them later than usual it may shatter their trust and confidence in you, thus igniting further separation anxiety.

You might need to assign another caregiver for your kids, whether it be your spouse, older child, or a nanny. Make sure to stick to one primary caregiver in order to relieve your child’s feelings of confusion or uncertainty. It will be much easier for them to deal with separation anxiety if they have a trusted companion to spend time with after you say goodbye.

4. Give off good vibes

When saying goodbye be as positive, nurturing, and affectionate as you can. This will ease feelings of stress, worry, and insecurity in your child. If your child confides his worries in you, listen, and give wise words of support. Ignoring your child’s pleas and using negative language won’t help your kids destress or relax at all.

Kids usually model the behavior they see in adults. Your child will have a much easier time navigating preschool or daycare if you act brave, confident, and empathetic when saying goodbye. Practicing relaxed and cheerful body language will also help your child feel safer and more secure in a new environment.

5. Explain things clearly

It helps to discuss terms and conditions with your little one. Explaining when you’ll be back and when you need to leave will help your child cope with separation better. Be as clear and specific as possible when discussing things with your child. Try to use child-friendly language like "naps" or  "bedtime" to avoid any confusion. If you need to change your plans, let your child know as soon as you can. This will help build trust and soothe any feelings of anxiety. 

6. Practice spending time apart

It helps to practice separation with your child before preschool starts. You can leave your little one with their primary caregiver for a few hours a day to ease their separation anxiety right away. Try to also let your child spend time with relatives, grandparents, and fellow kids when you can. That way, they won’t feel too afraid of navigating new places and meeting new people by the time preschool begins.

When to seek professional help

While separation anxiety is a normal childhood experience, some kids might not be able to grow out of it easily. If your child struggles with intense separation anxiety even after their preschool years, and if they have a difficult time making friends or doing normal activities because of it, they could be suffering from separation anxiety disorder. Thankfully, this problem can also be managed with professional help, as well as plenty of patience and support.

You may need to consult your local health care provider if your child exhibits any of the following symptoms:

  • Being afraid that something will happen to parents and loved ones while they’re away
  • A recurring fear that something bad will happen to them while they’re away from loved ones
  • Feeling distressed and anxious while away from home
  • Refusing to leave home or separate from loved ones
  • Difficulty sleeping due to anxiety or recurrent nightmares
  • Complaining about sickness in order to keep loved ones from leaving
  • An inability to spend time alone
  • Difficulty sleeping without a loved one nearby