We’ve all come across a child clinging to their mother’s arm for dear life. Crying in desperate hope that mummy won’t leave them at the party, begging her to take her back to the car instead.
Sometimes children go through these phases; they are more likely to go through this around the beginning of the school year, or when the Christmas holidays are over. And it is perfectly normal and healthy when young children, experiencing kindergarten for the first time cry for their parents to stay with them.
But what’s happening when a child consistently finds it difficult to separate from their parents, even in situations that they’re familiar with?
This is separation anxiety. The anxiety kicks in whenever the child anticipates that they have to be away from their parent/s. Sunday nights, tummy aches kick in. Arriving at dance school, the child is begging not to go into class.
This can be frustrating for the parent who has to negotiate and plead with the child to just do what all the other children are doing so easily. It can be embarrassing when there are other parents around to witness the outburst. And it can be totally bewildering when there is no apparent cause for this behaviour, which sometimes comes on suddenly.
So what is separation anxiety and why does it happen? Separation anxiety is the worry and fear a child experiences when they must be separate from the people they rely on for love and safety. The child worries that something catastrophic might happen during the time that they must be away from their parent. This could result in the worst scenario ever: the parent might not return.
Usually, children are not able to express this fear verbally, as they are typically unaware of the meaning of what they experience. All they know is that they feel it – it is all consuming and unbearable. They express it by throwing tantrums, crying, clinging, and they often experience physical discomfort such as tummy and head-aches. No matter how much the child is reassured that daddy will be back soon, the time to wait is just far too long.
For this fear to come about, the child is usually in touch with a sense of loss or unsafety. This could be due to several things – perhaps someone they care about has moved far away or died. It could be the result of a change in schedule – perhaps a parent is working more than they used to and the child is finding it difficult to adapt. Sometimes the child doesn’t experience the separation themselves, but is in touch with another’s mourning and the thought that they could lose someone they love seems imminent.
We can empathise with these children, as we all know how it feels to wish we didn’t have to be apart from someone. We also know what it feels like to fear losing someone we love. Sometimes we feel this when we say bye to people who mean a lot to us. We might continue to think about them for a while or we might wonder if we will ever see them again. Get in touch with this feeling that arises in you from time to time and imagine what it might be like to constantly live with this fear. It would make you a bundle of nerves if for most of the day, you were scared that the people you rely on for safety and belonging in this world could be taken from you.
Although children experiencing this may come across like they are overreacting or just seeking attention, what they are feeling is very real to them, and they need adult guidance to help them put it in perspective.
This is how you can help:
- Acknowledge the fear. Let your child know that you see that they are scared and you are there for them.
- Empathise with your child. Without becoming overwhelmed by the fear yourself, get in touch with the fear of loss. Let your child know that you too experience this feeling sometimes. Listen to your child and try to understand what the separation means to them. Who are they scared of losing? When do they feel the fear the most? What are they scared could happen? Once the child sees that you understand them, they will feel supported and their anxiety will lessen.
- Reassure the child that even when you are away from each other, you always remember them. It is important that they understand that no matter the distance and time apart, they are always loved.
- Use a transitional object: offer your child an object that will represent you when you are not around. This could be a picture of you, a piece of jewellery, a little teddy bear or a key chain – anything they connect with you. This symbol represents the love that is always there even when you are not physically present. When your child feels anxious, they can hold onto this object and remember that they will be okay.
- Be cruel to be kind: Separation anxiety will not do damage to your child. Leaving your child at school or at a party, may be overwhelming for them (and sometimes for you too!), but eventually they will calm down and with practice the situation will become easier and easier. If the child sees that you sometimes give into their crying and take them home, they will continue to test you and the anxiety will arise whenever they have to face a similar situation.
- Be clear: Let your child know where they are going, who they will be with and when they will see you again. This makes the time apart more manageable.
- Stay calm: If you respond with agitation to their anxiety, this will unsettle the child further. If you remain calm and, with clarity, reassure them, you will be the rock that they need. They might need a cuddle, you’re not spoiling them if you give them one, so go for it.
- Have patience: Separation anxiety might just be a phase that lasts a week or two, but sometimes it lasts longer than that. The purpose of working on separation anxiety is not to stamp it out completely – that would be like trying to obliterate sadness or anger. Instead, the goal is to understand it so that it is no longer overwhelming, and to teach the child to cope healthily.
I hope this is helpful. If you have questions or comments, please post them below so that we can discuss.