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Dealing with separation anxiety in young children

Dealing with separation anxiety in young children

Separation anxiety can be quite a challenge for both little ones and their parents! While it is perfectly normal and peaks at certain ages and developmental stages, it can still be daunting. Keep reading for some ideas on how to ease into transitions!

Separation anxiety normally peaks between 18 months and three years, when little ones start making sense of separateness from their parents, and start developing their own sense of self. However, separation anxiety is not just age-related, and can come and go over various age-groups. It can also be related to some underlying stress or anxiety, uncertainty, trauma, or be temperament-related.

Separation anxiety becomes challenging when severe separation anxiety persists that is in-congruent with a child’s developmental level, or when it starts impacting a child’s functioning. When you see your child struggling with physical symptoms due to separation anxiety, such as nausea, vomiting, stomach- or headaches, or if your child experiences excessive distress at the thought of leaving a parental figure, and struggles to function away from parents, it might be useful to consider therapeutic input and guidance.

What to do to help with separation anxiety:

Give your little one plenty of predictability surrounding imminent separations. For instance, mention where you/your little one might be going, who they will be with, what they will be doing, as well as what you will be doing. Remember to provide predictability about your reunion as well, and reassure them that you will do a favourite, fun activity together to celebrate your reunion! This could slot into a familiar routine, such as a walk to the park after school, which adds predictability to an unpredictable situation, and makes your little one feel more in control.

Make time to connect with your little one at home, and spend quality one-on-one time together on a daily basis. Be sure to make plenty of positive eye-contact, and to let your little one lead the play. This increases feelings of control and relational safety. Increase the frequency of games like peek-a-boo and hide-and-seek, to help your little one master the idea of object permanence – even though mommy or daddy leaves the room, they always come back!

Communicate your calm
When the time for separation comes, it can feel hard for parents too! But be sure to stay calm, and communicate your calm confidence to your little one in your verbal messages, tone of voice, body language and facial expressions. Little ones are still very much dependent on adults in regulating themselves, and if a well-regulated, calm adult communicates their confidence that a little one will be alright in a particular environment, they are more likely to trust it and let go with a little more ease. Consistency of these messages over time help little ones to regulate, and settle into a new environment with more confidence. Keep goodbyes upbeat and brief, so as not to prolong the goodbye-trigger.

Transitional objects
Dealing with separation anxiety in young childrenTransitional objects, such as a favourite cuddly toy, a binkie, or another object with relational significance, can be of tremendous help during transitions and when separation anxiety is triggered. A treasured object that helps your little one to feel safe, can help them in an environment where you are not present, and can help them to retain a feeling of closeness to you.

A lovely transitional object is the Fairy Caravan fairy and flower lockets and pendants – a photograph of mommy or daddy can be placed inside the locket, as a visual reminder of their closeness. To view the lockets and pendants, please click here.

Bridging is useful for slightly older children – parents can make use of previous instances when a child was alright during separation, and remind the child of coping skills that helped them with the challenge of separation. Think with your child how he/she might use those same skills (for instance, the use of a transitional object) to help themselves feel safe.

While these guidelines on handling separation anxiety is not an exhaustive list, hopefully it eases the great cling somewhat, and opens up some space for adventure and exploration for little ones (and parents!).

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