Dealing with Separation Anxiety in Babies and Children

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Credit: Paul Hanoaka via Unsplash

Whether there’s a return to nursery to navigate, or you’re getting ready to venture out sans baby, here’s what you need to know about separation anxiety in babies and young children.

Separation anxiety can be summarised as the feelings and behaviours babies and children have when they are being separated from their parents. We all know the last few months haven’t been easy, and we’ve all had to adapt to a situation we never imagined would happen. Many of us had to dive straight in – at the deep end – to looking after and homeschooling our children.

But now we’re coming out of the other side, things are beginning to return to a ‘new normal’, and in September nearly nine million children are expected to go back to school. Having spent months together as families, often within our social bubbles, it may come as no surprise to hear that separation anxiety is on the rise as the time draws closer. In fact, if we look at Google data, there were more than 40,000 searches on the topic in July; this has been slowly creeping up since April.

Sophia Nomicos, founder of parenting network Mas and Pas, has created a guide on separation anxiety, backed by clinical psychologist Sarah Mundy. Here she shares seven of the most common signs that may indicate that your child is suffering from separation anxiety

Separation Anxiety: 7 Signs to Watch out for in Your Child

Crying-babyCrying

If your child is of the age where they know they will be going back to school soon, their first reaction may be to feel upset. They may become quite tearful at the thought of leaving you, who they have been with for so long, and heading back out into the ‘unknown’. This may be worse if they are starting a new school too as they won’t be going back to familiar faces. On top of that, it is completely normal, given the current circumstances, for anyone to have health concerns surrounding COVID-19. In younger children, you may experience these outbursts when you go to drop them off with a caregiver; it is difficult to witness but should get better and better with each passing day.

Clinginess

With the knowledge that change is just around the corner, you may notice that your child becomes particularly clingy and may refuse to leave your side. They may become reluctant to play and explore on their own and – particularly toddlers – may follow you around to ensure you aren’t leaving them, even tugging at your clothes or clinging to your leg. They may also become clingy when reintroduced to those outside your original social bubble – remember, it has been a long time for them so ‘stranger danger’ is likely to be heightened at this time.

Refusing to do things

Your child may refuse to do anything that would involve being separated from you, which can definitely prove challenging! This can sometimes involve refusing to do things they used to be fine with before, such as going to see granny and grandad for a few hours, or overnight.

Poor sleep

As adults, we know there is a link between stress and poor sleep. Your child may even be reluctant to go to sleep altogether, which can make bedtimes a battle (we all know how cranky children can get if they don’t get enough shut-eye!). Separation anxiety may even manifest itself as an increased fear of the dark, noises, or monster under the bed.

Nightmares

Separation anxiety can make children insomniacs – either for the fear that something bad is going to happen to you or them while they’re asleep, or because they may suffer from nightmares. Sometimes, you may even be jolted awake to the sound of your child crying and calling out for you in the middle of the night, in need of reassurance that you’re still there and that you’re ok.

Physical illness

It is not uncommon for children who have separation anxiety to manifest physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach ache or even vomiting. You may notice these symptoms getting worse, or more frequent, as the time to return to school grows nearer. Sometimes, a child may use these symptoms as a way to get out of school.

Panic or temper tantrums

Children that are experiencing separation anxiety are likely to go through a mixture of emotions. Younger children often throw ‘temper tantrums’ as a way of testing their authority, or in order to manipulate you – this is a normal part of their development and growing independence. Temper tantrums can involve anything from them lying on the ground whining and crying to screaming, kicking hitting or even breath-holding.


Who can suffer from separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety isn’t a one-sided affair. The way adults behave can turn a passing phase into an everyday habit. Dropping off times would be so much easier if we understood what separation anxiety was.

At times of change we feel better with the security of familiarity. At certain stages of development and during particular life changes, babies and children need familiarity more than usual. For example, before the age of six months, babies are usually content being with any adult who comforts them. But, they then learn that things continue to exist even when they’re out of their sight. Imagine realising that someone exists even when they’re not in view. What’s the first thing you’d do? Work out a way of getting them back into your sight again. By making very loud noises, babies can bring their mummy or daddy back again and feel content and safe once more. This craving to be close to parents increases over the next 4-6 months as babies begin to appreciate the potential risks of being alone.

Separation anxiety can also emerge when a child starts nursery or school. Having got used to being at home with mummy or daddy, the challenge of being in a big, noisy, busy environment brings back all the worries about being apart. So children revert back to the crying and clinging in order to keep their safe haven ie, their parents, close to them.

When does separation anxiety become a problem?

Separation anxiety is a part of every child’s development. Remember – feeling anxious, especially during this time, is completely normal. The best thing you can do is talk openly with your child about the changes, empathise with their worries and make the experience as fun and enjoyable as possible.

However, for some babies and children it can become a prominent part of their lives. This may be because of some trauma they have experienced, or because they have been living in an unsettled environment. For others, it may be because they and their parent have got into the habit of long, painful separations. The message parents are giving by clinging on, getting upset and returning as soon as the child cries loudly is “yes, there really is something to worry about”. As the child’s anxiety grows, so does the parent’s.

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Credit: Marcos Paulo via Unsplash

So what can I do about it?

First and foremost, don’t worry. Separation anxiety is a very common phase which most children will grow out of. In the meantime you can follow this four step plan on how to happily PART:

  1. Plan – any transition is made easier by being planned and predictable. Have a goodbye routine which you enact each day e.g. walk to the classroom, give a hug and two kisses, tell them that you will be back to get them when school finishes after which you will go and buy some food or go to the park, then get up and walk away. Practice being apart by having mini-separations, leaving then with your friend or partner as you nip to the shops for 20 minutes. You will all learn that you can survive a separation. The more you practice the less anxious you both will be.
  2. Act – babies and children have finely tuned antennae which can quickly pick up on your emotions. Talk yourself into being calm by taking long slow breaths and repeating to yourself strength-giving phrases to help you to feel relaxed and in control. The more you convince yourself that you are calm, the more you will feel calm. Your child does not need to see how hard you are finding it. They know you love them.
  3. Recite a script to yourself as you walk away from your crying child. You know your child needs to be separated from you so that they can learn to cope by themselves in this big world. You also know that your child has to have the opportunity to learn, to be with other children and be independent from you. If you feel guilty, recite why you are leaving your child – if it is motivated by things other than your child eg, to maintain a career, to have enough money for holidays, then think about how it directly benefits your child.
  4. Treat yourself. Learning to love you child from a distance is one of the hardest things a parent can do. Be kind to yourself. Keep a diary to monitor how much change you are both making, and reward yourself and your child as you both learn how to separate happily.

Separation anxiety is a formal term for an everyday occurrence. Trust yourself and your child to get through these phases intact. It’s all part of the learning process of being a parent and a child.

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