A foster mom once shared with me her joy the first time the baby she was caring for reached out and clung to her when she attempted to leave him at the church nursery. He had been with her for weeks and had never seemed to have a preference for her until that day.
Her excitement wasn’t due to his distress. It was because she knew it meant that he finally viewed her as his “person” and felt safe with her. She knew that allowing him to stay would also show him it was safe to be in the nursery and give them both a chance to practice the truth that she would always come back.
Child separation anxiety, depending on the cause, can be troubling.
If it is simply an indication of a strong relationship with their caregiver, it can be endearing. But if it’s due to more serious circumstances, parents must decide what to do about it.
5 Signs of Child Separation Anxiety and What to Do
Here are five signs that your child has separation anxiety and some things to consider to help them through it.
- Your Baby Cries When You Leave the Room
There are times in a child’s life when age-related milestones can bring on separation anxiety. For example, a baby between the ages of four to eight months may start showing signs of anxiety when they are unable to see their caregiver in the room. They might start to cry or show signs of distress when a loved one leaves.
This is because they are just learning to recognize familiar objects and people and form feelings around them. They do not yet realize that just because they can’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
This is a fun time to show your child that you will consistently reappear. Practice playing peek-a-boo with your child and enjoy this time in their life.
As children get older, they realize that their caregiver will always return. As their trust is established, they learn that the places and people their caregiver trusts are safe for them.
- They Get Stressed When Seeing New Places and Faces
Sometimes a child will be anxious when it is time to visit new places. They might be reluctant to leave the house for a new event, stay in the corner when they arrive, or display tantrums or meltdown behavior.
The unknown is one of the most common anxiety-inducing factors. The way to combat this is to prepare your child as much as you can.
Let them know what to expect. This can include showing them pictures of the place they are going to and the people there and, if possible, describing activities and expectations for behavior while there and even offering a preview of the place without the requirement of separation.
If you think about it, this is why schools have orientations. If we use the same model for new places that our kids may visit without us, it could be of help.
Preparation is key. Knowing what they can expect from new people is also important. Conversations beforehand about expected behavior for them and the other people around them can empower them and ultimately keep them safe when you are not there.
Be honest. Letting them know why you are leaving them in a new place or with new people, why you trust them, why you trust the people who will be caring for them, and what to do if something goes wrong can all help calm their nerves.
- Bedtime Is a Battle
Bedtime can be a very difficult time for kids. Even adults can be stressed at bedtime.
Dreams are unknown and can sometimes be scary. It’s a completely different world when it’s dark and the house is quiet.
The prospect of sleeping alone can be anxiety-inducing. Signs your child is experiencing this might include a reluctance to fall asleep, refusing to go to bed, or tears and angry behavior.
There are things you can do to help:
- A relaxing, predictable, bedtime routine
- A peaceful, calming bedroom space
- Lots of supportive talks throughout the day
- A sleep aid like melatonin
- Bedtime buddies like stuffed animals, special blankets, some even weighted and warmed
- A gradual transition from a parent sleeping with them to sleeping alone
Consistency and predictability are key for bedtime anxiety. With every successful bedtime, the positive experiences build, until one day you find that your child is ready to go peacefully to bed with no anxiety.
- Negative Experiences Have Great Impact
According to research, Separation Anxiety Disorder is characterized by “developmentally inappropriate and excessive anxiety concerning separation from home or from those to whom the individual is attached.”
Sudden separation anxiety symptoms, sudden intense symptoms, or increasing in intensity over time can all be clues. Children with separation anxiety may have developed this due to negative experiences.
If it is especially difficult for your child to be separated from you, they are reluctant to leave home, or experience feelings of sickness when it is time to go somewhere, a negative experience could be the problem.
It is important to follow up with our kids when we are reunited with them. Preparing them is important, and the follow-up is just as important. Talk to your kids about their experiences, let them know that if at any time they do not feel safe, if something upsetting happened, or if they were confused by something or someone, you are there.
As with so many other aspects of parenting, we must keep the lines of communication open. This can also mean providing access to a therapist or other professional that our kids can confide in as well.
When details of negative experiences come out, it is important for us to take it in our stride, model appropriate behavior in response, and find a solution together.
If appropriate, one way to ensure our kids’ safety is to remove them from the situation altogether. “Appropriate” is the operative word here, though, since removal isn’t always the most effective solution.
Reinforcement of negative behaviors around separation anxiety is one of the pitfalls we as parents can fall into. Giving in to tantrums or claims of sickness without investigation can make our children feel less safe.
This is because it puts all the control into their hands. They need us to help guide them through, to support them, and to know that they are safe with us always.
We can do this by:
- Talking through the negative incident
- Talking action if needed
- Including the other caregivers
- Talking through solutions for the future
- Empowering our kids with tools for success
- Lots of practice at home and back where or with whom it happened
Our kids need to build their confidence, handle the things they can on their own, and know that they don’t always have to because we have their backs.
- Your Child Has Experienced Trauma
Parents, we can’t control every aspect of our child’s life. Not everything that happens to them is a result of bad parenting or accidents. Sometimes, circumstances beyond our control can cause our children to experience trauma.
Though trauma is also a negative experience, it is much different from a misunderstanding or simply something your child did not like. Trauma is much more serious and requires extra support.
Like the foster mom we talked about earlier, caregivers are not always aware of or responsible for what their children have gone through. We are responsible for doing all we can to protect, support, and love them.
Kids who have separation anxiety tell us a lot when they cling to a person or place. It is because that person or place represents safety to them. Sometimes, what feels safe isn’t. Other times, what feels safe is safe.
If you are reading this article, you are probably the kind of parent or caregiver who wants the best for your kids. This means that you are their safe place. If they are showing signs of separation anxiety and have experienced trauma, you can rest assured that them clinging to you means they feel safe with you.
This is a good thing. The next step is to get professionals involved to help your child work through the trauma, heal, and move forward.
Speak to your child’s pediatrician, therapist, or other family members they trust. Build a team to support your child and your family.
There are many reasons why a child will have separation anxiety. The people and places they cling on to whenever they are afraid can show where they feel safe.
Reinforcing and modeling good behavior, creating a safe predictable environment, preparing our kids for new places and people, communicating, and enlisting the help of professionals when needed can all help your family get through it.