What is separation anxiety?
As a parent or carer, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that separation anxiety means I’ve done something wrong.
Children who haven’t bonded with their caregiver don’t usually cry, as we see with children who as babies were not held and rocked and snuggled.
These babies stop crying because they know that no one will answer. Children who haven’t bonded don’t experience separation anxiety.
So the crying and clinging that happens when you try to drop off your child at nursery or school is a sign that your child’s brain is developing normally. This was a big weight lifted for me as a mum when my child cried ALOT going into school.
How can you support your child or young person with separation anxiety?
These are my own opinions as a mum that helped but also using some mindfulness techniques I use as a therapist.
Transitional objects, Comfort blankets, teddies etc will help your child by using their senses to be reminded that they’re safe and will provide comfort at the times your child needs it most. You can buy a special object or your child might have something that they’re attached to already. Having a transitional object does not mean in any way that your child isn’t ready or will be picked on by other children.
Pictures are a reminder When my youngest daughter started school the school reception teacher asked parents and carers to bring in a picture on the first day to put in a picture frame in the play house area. This helped my little one remember that we’re not too far away and when my daughter focused on the family picture she felt the love and protection that comes from us all. Any anxiety she may have been feeling will have lifted in that moment from focusing deeply on her loved ones, oxytocin (the bonding hormone) was released. This activated another pattern in her brain that literally released any fear around being in school without us. If your child’s or young persons school doesn’t ask you for a picture you can ask them and explain the positive impact it can have. Some people think that having a picture may cause more upset but after that initial separation at the door it really can help support your child or young person.
Stepladder approach for separation anxiety
It can be tempting to simply let a child avoid situations where she might feel separation anxiety. We can choose not to drop our babies off at the gym nursery, or to keep them out of swimming lessons, or even to home school.
Instead, you can try this stepladder approach. The first step of your stepladder should be the thing your child fears the least. This might be as simple as leaving your child in another room while you take a little break in the bathroom, or leaving her at home with home with dad for 10 minutes while you go to the shops. If necessary, offer a reward to the child when you return but praise usually works wonders so don’t worry about buying a reward as this can become something that your child expects. I would turn up to my sons school with after school snacks as a treat or a little book I had picked up from a local shop. I stopped this the day I turned up after working a little later which meant no time to stop at a shop and my son kicked off massively because I didn’t have a prize for him. Ensure that you use positive praise as well as a little prize like a sticker or a printable certificate you can download from
Twinkl – https://www.twinkl.com
Once your child experiences less fear around the first step, give them even more praise and encouragement! They’ve done incredible so make sure they know it.
Then you take the next step. This might be dropping her off at for 30 minutes at your parents house or for a very short play time date with a friend. If those steps are too far apart, pull back and make very small changes instead.
Play therapy through social stories
Play therapy is designed to role play normal, everyday situations while allowing your child or young person to identify the solutions that may come with tricky situations. Social stories through play therapy is often used when working with children with autism, anxiety, and other similar struggles.
A social story can help a child with anxiety in several ways:
- It shows the situation from a child’s perspective.
- It helps the child have appropriate expectations about the situation.
- It gives the child the chance to have some control over what they will experience.
Social stories can be written for young child, or why not them have some say in how the story will go, that is more likely to will the child or young person a sense of control over their life. This sense of control can be really important to a child with anxiety because they know what’s coming next. Great for when scheduling the days agenda or deciding how the day looks for our children or young people as well as for ourselves.
If you’re struggling with separation anxiety and you would like private 1-1 counselling support please fill in the contact us form and we can direct you.