How to Comfort Children Experiencing Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety is a form of anxiety difficulties that occurs when a child is separated from their parents or those close to them, resulting in feelings of distress and panic. It can be helpful for parents to be aware of the signs of separation anxiety in childhood, know how to recognise the symptoms, and learn how to help children cope with their anxiety. In this blog, we’ll look at the causes of childhood separation anxiety, as well as some tips on how to comfort children when feeling distressed
What is Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety is a very common condition in which children experience extreme fear and distress when separated from their parents or primary caregivers. This type of anxiety can range from mild to severe and can be disruptive to the child’s everyday life. Symptoms of separation anxiety may include fear of being away from home, crying when separated from parents, excessive worrying about something happening to the parent, and physical symptoms like stomach aches and headaches.
Separation anxiety affects 4-9% of children (Anxiety Care UK, 2017). It is important to remember that some separation anxiety is normal to a certain extent. Most children experience some level of anxiety when separated from their parents, however, if you are worried that your child’s anxiety is more severe or is having a negative impact on their lives, then it is important to consult a medical professional for advice.
Symptoms of Separation Anxiety
Physical symptoms of separation anxiety can include sleeplessness, poor appetite, headaches, stomach aches, and increased bed-wetting. These physical symptoms may start before the actual separation and can worsen when the separation occurs, indicating a heightened anxiety level. When the separation is completed, the physical symptoms may still persist and may continue until the child has time to process the situation. It is important to note that not all physical symptoms are derived from separation anxiety. If the physical symptoms last beyond a usual amount of time for your child, it is recommended to seek further psychological help.
The most common behavioural symptoms of separation anxiety include crying, clinging, suppressing feelings, temper tantrums, difficulty sleeping, nightmares, and isolating oneself. Sometimes, children will experience physical and emotional outbursts.
Every child is different and external factors and past experiences may also be influencing your child’s behaviour. If several of the previously mentioned symptoms are present, it could be a sign of separation anxiety.
Causes of Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety can be a normal part of growing up, but it can become a problem for some children. But what are the causes?
Early Developmental Factors
When it comes to child separation anxiety, several early development factors come into play. The first is that young children naturally rely on their parents for security and safety. This dependency can leave them feeling vulnerable, particularly when faced with unfamiliar situations or being alone. Additionally, young children are still developing the cognitive ability to imagine results that don’t match the reality they are experiencing. This can cause the child to worry excessively about potential outcomes that might not necessarily come true. For instance, a young child may fear a parent never coming back after their separation.
Environmental factors can also lead to separation anxiety issues in young children. For instance, if a child is accustomed to constant support and connection in their home life, leaving it may lead to an uncomfortable level of anxiety. If they have previously experienced a traumatic event, such as being left alone and forgotten, separation can cause them to feel overwhelmed and unsafe.
Another environmental factor that can influence the development of separation anxiety is living in an atmosphere that encourages overprotection and a lack of independence. This can lead to a child feeling overwhelmed by the need to navigate life without the parental figure constantly present which could give rise to anxiety when left alone. Separation anxiety can be a very distressing experience for children, so it is important to be aware of the environmental factors that may contribute to its development.
Tips on Comforting Your Child
Comforting a child with separation anxiety can be challenging, but with patience and understanding, parents and caregivers can help alleviate their fears and foster a sense of security.
Create A Consistent Routine
Familiarity and structure provide a sense of stability and security in their lives, helping them feel more at ease when facing separation. By having a set routine for daily activities such as mealtimes, bedtimes, and departures, parents and caregivers can help reduce the uncertainty and fear that often accompany separation anxiety.
Encourage Open Communication
Encouraging open communication can comfort children with separation anxiety. By fostering honest and empathetic conversations, parents and caregivers can help children better understand and process their emotions, ultimately reducing the distress associated with separation anxiety.
To promote open communication, create a safe space where the child feels comfortable discussing their fears and anxieties without fear of judgment or dismissal. Actively listen to their concerns, validate their emotions, and offer reassurance, emphasising that it’s normal to feel anxious during times of separation. Sharing personal experiences or stories of others who have faced similar challenges can also help the child feel less alone in their struggle and provide them with valuable insights on how to cope with their anxiety.
Additionally, involving the child in problem-solving discussions can empower them to face their fears and develop practical coping strategies. By collaboratively brainstorming solutions and offering support, parents, and caregivers can help build the child’s confidence and resilience, enabling them to better manage their separation anxiety.
Empower Them With Coping Strategies
Empowering children experiencing separation anxiety by equipping them with coping strategies can nurture a sense of competence, allowing children to confidently face new situations and overcome their anxiety..
One effective coping strategy is teaching deep breathing exercises, which can help calm the child’s nervous system and reduce anxiety symptoms. Encourage the child to take slow, deep breaths, focusing on their inhales and exhales, whenever they feel anxious or overwhelmed. Visualisation techniques, such as imagining a safe and comforting place, can also provide solace during moments of distress.
Another approach is to make saying goodbye a positive time (NHS, 2023) that helps ease the transition during separations. This could be a special handshake, a hug, or a specific phrase that you share with your child before parting ways. Having a small comfort item, like a stuffed animal or a family photo, can also serve as a source of reassurance and connection when they are away from their caregiver.
Finally, encourage children to express their feelings through creative outlets, such as drawing, writing, or role-playing. This can help them process their emotions and gain new perspectives on their experiences.
By empowering children with these coping strategies, parents and caregivers can provide them with the tools they need to navigate separation anxiety and develop emotional resilience, ultimately enabling them to thrive in various life situations.
How Can Therapy Help?
Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) can be a very effective tool in helping a child to cope with separation anxiety. Through engaging in CBT, a child can begin to recognise their anxious thought patterns and replace them with more positive and realistic thoughts. Additionally, by teaching children coping strategies such as distraction, grounding, and self-soothing techniques, they can be better equipped to handle the fear and distress of being separated from their loved ones. When a child is struggling with separation anxiety, it’s extremely important to offer them unconditional support and understanding.
Spend time talking to them, reassuring them, and addressing any worries they have. If their anxiety has become too overwhelming, professional help can also be incredibly valuable. With support and guidance, a child with separation anxiety can learn to cope more effectively and enjoy being separated from their parents or guardians without fear or distress.
Overall, parenting a child with separation anxiety can be difficult and challenging. The key is to approach it with understanding, validation, and patience. Each child is different and strategies must suit their individual needs. By offering reassurance, providing consistent routines, facilitating communication, teaching coping methods, and encouraging gradual exposure to new situations, parents can help to equip their children with the resilience they need to manage their emotions and navigate life’s challenges.
(Anxiety Care UK, 2017) – https://anxietycare.org.uk/anxiety/separation-anxiety/
(NHS, 2O23O) https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/baby/babys-development/behaviour/separation-anxiety/