In many cases, people can forget that older children can be as prone to separation anxiety as younger children and toddlers. In fact, as the years tick by, as a therapist, I see more and more children experiencing separation anxiety.
What does it look like?
In its simplest terms, separation anxiety, is when a child, teen or an adult is scared/afraid to be away from a particular person. Albeit a parent, guardian, partner or a pet. The concept of being apart from them creates severe anxiety. This can include physical and emotional symptoms:
- Stomach aches
- Crying / distress
- Begging or pleading not to leave
- Panic (inc. shaking, hiding)
- Retching or being sick
- Fear of leaving the significant person
- A fear that something ‘bad’ will happen if they are not with them
- A fear of being alone
- Refusal to sleep alone
- Refusal to sleep away from home / away from significant adult
- Avoidance of situations away from the significant adult
- Difficulty sleeping or nightmares about separation
- Regression – thumb sucking, bed wetting, soiling
So, what causes it?
Whilst, in my previous blog about toddlers (see it here) we saw that separation anxiety is a developmental norm for many children, in older children and adults, it can often occur after a traumatic event, such as:
- Insecure attachments
- Development of an illness (in themselves or a parent/carer)
- Death of a loved one
- Death of a pet
- A stay in hospital
- Change of environment (house, school)
- A new sibling
- A significant event which creates fear or uncertainty
- Overprotective parenting
- In some situations, it can be created due to parent behaviours**
** In cases where a parent suffers with significant anxiety of their own, there are mental health issues in the family, events in the parent’s life have caused them to become fearful, or parents are over-protective a child may be more prone to separation anxiety.
How do we support a child with separation anxiety?
If you have recognised that your child may have symptoms of separation anxiety, identifying how to adapt your routines, home life and responses is a core part of the process to support them.
Please note, that this blog is not a means to diagnosis, and in some cases, a child may require therapeutic input from a therapist to support their emotional well-being and build their resilience to being alone.
Children with separation anxiety, can have lower levels of resilience, so when something happens it can set them backwards, or escalate their anxiety, so really knowing your child, their triggers and their emotional responses can allow you to support them and help them thrive.
Some things that you can implement include:
- Create a secure base & consistency –All children, just like adults, thrive in consistency. Our brains, neurologically work on a pattern based system and when we experience the familiar our brains adjust quickly and easily. If we consistently know that we will be met with similar responses, support and help then anxiety is lessened. If a child knows that their home, routines and lives follow generalised patterns, they will feel more secure. On the reverse, when we experience something new, different or unexpected we cannot process it easily, and depending on our resilience will depend on the impact on emotional and mental well-being.
- Listen to their feelings with no judgement – Encouraging children to talk about their feelings and listening respectfully and with no judgement can be easier said than done. Particularly if you have not experienced anxiety and therefore find it difficult to connect to what they are saying. So, first and foremast, finding out how your child’s anxiety affects them is the key. This may be from having face to face conversations, through talking whilst taking part in arts or crafts or you may find it easier with resources to support you. On our Adventures of Brian website, there are a whole host of resources that can help you, including some worksheets about feelings and also our Exploratory Feelings Cards which includes a manual and questions you can use to help you talk to your child about how their feelings affect them. The cards have been created to encourage conversation that is based on open questions and therefore, avoid leading, assuming or judgement.
- Stop the spontaneity – Children with anxiety can feel overwhelmed by the world and processing day to day changes can feel really difficult. Therefore, springing spontaneity at them can be the thing that breaks their emotions and means that the balls that they were trying so hard to juggle becomes impossible so everything crashes. Having the empathy that right now consistency and planned changes are core to creating the secure base they need is the most supportive route. You can still plan in new places to visit, new events and visits to friends, just do not spring it on them at a moment’s notice.
- Involve them in planning – Children with anxiety most often feel ‘out of control’ which is why their anxiety escalates when they have changes sprung on them. Therefore, allowing them opportunity to take part in the planning process of the family diary can support them with a sense of control and participation. You may encourage them to create their own weekly diary planner of their events so that they can visually see them and have time to talk through any strategies. NB – avoid giving months of events, if your child’s anxiety is severe you may just look at yesterday and today, moderate yesterday, today and tomorrow, milder the week.
- Visit places before-hand – If you are planning on a new experience, such as a family trip, or there are changes coming up, preparation is your friend. This can include visiting the location before-hand so that they can see what it looks like and see the journey, for instance, if it is a birthday party go and have a look so they can see where you will drop them, meet them etc. If it is a transition such as moving house, visit to take their own photos and research to create scrap book – perhaps also draw a floor plan so that they can plan where they want to put their things or design their décor. If it is school, contact and ask for a private view e.g. on an inset day, so that you can take time to regulate, take pictures and meet people (see my FREE school transition eBook for more details). For children with severe anxiety, you may want to liaise with the school regarding extra transition days, starting with half days and building these up, a key staff member to meet them each morning or a quiet space to meet in before they enter class.
- Make one change at a time (keep a sense of familiarity) – when changes are occurring anxiety creates a sense of overwhelm. So, when changes are occurring focus on one at a time. Trying to change multiple things at once leads to stress, and this can prevent any progress from occurring. Choose your battles wisely, and where possible, choose one change at a time to focus on, e.g. don’t swap schools and gymnastics classes and move their bedrooms all at once – it’s a recipe for disaster. Look at the core issue that is the priority, change this and secure it, then complete the next one so that your child’s sense of safety is secured.
- Plan for the fears, but end by identifying the positives – Anxiety has a negative dialogue and is future focussed, therefore children lose sense of the ‘now’. Encourage them to plan for their future events, but end by identifying positives in the here and now such as, ‘I have my plan so now I will play Lego’ or ‘I have visited and it feels better, so I will read my book’. Bringing their focus back to the present moment and supporting them to reframe their worries into positive statements is an important step. You may want to create a positivity or gratitude diary to help them record their good moments (see here for Brian’s positivity book).
- Keep adult conversations to adults – Anxiety can be like having a party of chimpanzees in your brain; causing chaos and throwing cake everywhere. It is important not to add to this. Keep adult conversations, particularly around finances, fears for the future or arguments out of reach and earshot. Children take in everything and a child with anxiety won’t just carry their own worries, they will carry yours with them as well, so don’t give them the opportunity. By all means, let them see normal emotions, if you are frustrated etc. express it, but be clear, ‘mummy/daddy is frustrated because I forgot something’ but don’t let them overhear conversations that may cause wider fear or affect their sense of safety.
- Have a separation routine and a goodbye ritual – Children with separation anxiety need help to create secure patterns of goodbyes being safe. Their brains interpret you leaving as never seeing you again, so developing a secure routine that you use EVERY TIME is paramount to supporting this. This can be a routine of a kiss, cuddle and squeeze, a trinket that you leave with them such as a photo key ring or a secret handshake that you use before you go – but the more consistently you do it the better they will feel. Once it is done, leave with no fuss and confidence, keeping it calm and safe. Avoiding your own emotions and fears getting involved will help them ten-fold. Children sense everything! NB – some children like to wave at a window until you are out of sight – do not then creep back into view as you will create a fear something is wrong.
- Connect when you are not there – (keyrings, notes, a trinket) – children can take great comfort from having a comfort item. However, as they get older these ideally need to be smaller items that can be discreetly carried. For instance, a daily note in a lunch box or pencil case, a keyring with a photo of you together or a small pin badge that they can wear and touch if they feel worried. Equally, having a spray of mum or dad’s perfume or aftershave can give children a sense of safety. If your child is one who worries, finding an item that they can keep with them can be a great help, however, do monitor this so that it remains as one small item and you don’t end up leaving the house with a whole suitcase!
- Keep your promises – Children with separation anxiety will take everything you say literally. Anxiety creates overthinking and they will mull over things that you say repeatedly, so the core action to remember at all times is – DO NOT BREAK PROMISES. Whether it’s part of routines or trips and visits, stay true. if you make promises to collect at 3pm, ensure that you are there at 3pm. If you say you are going to visit grandma on Saturday – ensure that you do. If you cannot be sure you will commit to it – do not say it. For instance, commit to visiting the beach ‘in the summer holidays’ but unless you know it will be next week do not say it. Evidently, on rare occasions, there will be things that you have to change or break, but careful management of promises can make these few and far between. For an anxious child, repeatedly breaking promises will escalate anxiety and add to their sense of ‘not being safe’ which is why our words and actions have to stay consistent.
- Praise their achievements – When your child achieves a new goal, make a fuss, praise them and tell them how proud you are to positively reinforce the behaviour. Praise and encouragement set off feel good emotions and the more you praise the behaviours and feelings that are positive the more that they will want to achieve them. Simultaneously, if you consistently criticise or talk about their short falls, they will focus on these, where our thoughts go – behaviours follow – which is why praise and positive reinforcement are vital to supporting separation anxiety.
What else can I do?
- Exercise – regular exercise and the release of endorphins supports our emotional well-being and helps children feel more relaxed.
- Sleep routines – keep bedtime routines consistent, secure and familiar.
- Good nutrition – a balanced diet of all core macronutrients supports emotional well-being and helps children feel good in themselves. Ensure that they are hydrated to support concentration and focus.
- Laughter – laughter releases oxytocin and reduces stress. Incorporating laughter and downtime which is carefree and fun is a huge support to anxiety.
- Relaxation and meditation – supporting children to incorporate regular relaxation or meditation into their routines can help them quieten their minds and reduce anxiety. This can be through hypnotherapy audios, meditation tracks or calming music.
Resources that can help:
- Check out Brian’s Exploratory Feelings Cards for resources to share with your child to support emotional literacy. Click here.
- Check out Brian’s Little Workbook to Grow Positive Thoughts to help children to plan out their own strategies to anxieties and develop a positivity diary. Click here.
- Check out Brian and the Scary Moment our children’s book about separation anxiety (also on audio book) to find out how Brian learns that his mummy will come back. Click here.
- Check out my Parent Anxiety Pack for more resources and activities to use at home. Click here.
For more resources you can visit www.adventuresofbrian.co.uk