After my fridge/freezer died on me this week I was tasked with having to purchase a new one, along with a full food shop to replace all that was lost. So on Saturday I was walking around Tesco and a dad walked past with his toddler in the trolley who was bawling his eyes out with a quivering lip as he wailed ‘mummy, want mummy’ it was enough to break any heart, but pulled me back to writing this blog about separation anxiety, which is well overdue.
Separation Anxiety is generally a common issue in children from 6months to 3 years, and many children grow out of it. However for some children it becomes a greater issue and they need wonder support systems to manage their emotions around leaving familiar people or places. Separation anxiety occurs at the stage when children recognise that they are dependent on you, it can affect parents, grandparents and carers.
Developmental separation anxiety
For most children the anxiety will ease quickly and they can become engaged in other activates. This is typical developmental anxiety which is expected. As young children once they learn the concept of object permanence – that an object or person continues to exist even when it is out of sight – around the age of 2-3 the anxiety will ease as they recognise that mum/dad/carer will return.
However for some children this developmental stage does not bring emotional support and the symptoms and behaviours of separation anxiety may continue. For some children this is simply because this aspect of development is not yet embedded, (and in some, but not all, children that are not used to being left) however, when anxiety prevents children from being engaged in their surroundings or activities then we may required further support. Effectively separation anxiety is the brain saying ‘I am not safe – I need my parent/carer’ and in order to support it we need to teach the brain that the parent will return.
Trauma related separation anxiety
In some cases children will have typical development and have worked through the usual stages, often having positive experiences of leaving and reuniting with main carers. However in the event of a traumatic event occurring such; a bereavement, loss, accident, illness, change of schools/house, loss of a family pet, divorce etc separation anxiety may suddenly occur where it was not previously an issue. This is often the case in children who are slightly older and develop symptoms which are unexpected or previously had not been an issue.
Signs of Separation Anxiety
- clinging to main carers
- screaming or refusal to leave parents
- extreme or excessive crying or distress
- refusal to visit places where main carers will leave
- complaining of stomach aches or nausea when plans approach
- refusal to go to school
- refusal to sleep alone
- temper tantrums or violent behaviour
- unable to interact with other children when left
- reduced or poor school performance
- physical pain/headaches when plans are pending
In some cases children may require therapy in order to overcome separation anxiety, but prior to this decision here are 6 simple steps you can embed to support your child to ease the anxiety (if symptoms do not lessen after consistent use for 2-3 weeks please seek support from your health visitor or GP)
Tips for Supporting Separation Anxiety
#1 – Have a consistent daily routine – Ensuring that there is a consistent routine is particularly important for children who experience separation anxiety. developing a routine where they consistently know you will leave and come back reduces the anxiety. In new situations talk through what will happen. Avoid separations when they are tired or hungry as this can exasperate anxiety.
#2 – Develop a loving goodbye routine – Develop a goodbye ritual (wave or a kiss etc) and then leave without fuss. Do not get caught up in a back and forth as this re-opens the anxiety. Be consistent, reassure that they will be fine and you will be back and make mimimal fuss.
#3 – Talk about what you will do together – Exploring your day together so that children know ‘what comes next’ supports children to process timelines. For some children visual timelines can be very useful. If children know what is coming ‘after’ they will have reassurance that you will return which will ease anxiety.
#4 – Make it positive – When your child separates from you calmly and quickly praise them when you collect them. Let them know that you are proud of them.
#5 – Offer Choices – When you are doing new things offer choices so that they feel they are involved. These should still involve the same outcome just allow them to be part of the process. e.g. Do you want mummy to drop you off or daddy? (either way they are being dropped off)
# 6 Leave something comforting – Leave your child something comforting that reminds them that you will come back, whether its a keyring with a photo of you both, a bear that smells of aromatherapy oils (seek appropriate anxiety blends from a qualified aromatherapist).
#7 Set limits and expectations – Anxiety is easier when there are limits and expectations, too much freedom and it can get out of control and it looks at all the choices and this causes upset.
Set expectations and limits and stick to them so that your children feel safe in their parameters.
#8 Reassure and love them – separation anxiety can take its toll on both child and parent, you may need to remind yourself that it is the behaviour which is frustrating (not the child). Avoid telling them that their behaviour is ‘silly’, focus on reassuring your child that you love them.
#9 Separate your anxiety from theirs – Sometimes as parents you can feel as anxious about leaving your child as they are of you. Maintain control over your own anxiety so as not to project this onto them as they will sense something is ‘wrong’ and this can cause panic and fear.
For more details about support, therapy or resources that Nicky can provide visit www.astepatatime.org.uk