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Separation Anxiety in Children

Separation anxiety is simply that leaving a parent can be worrying for a child. With you, they feel secure and without you they are not sure they will be able to cope. Our job as parents is to ensure our children are resilient and therefore we need to show our belief in their ability to manage and cope without them while empathising that it can be hard (first day at school etc). Separation anxiety is common from nine to eighteen months and then again at about 4-5 years of age when starting school or at any time of change in the home or in their routine.

Anxiety in children

When we understand that separation anxiety is a feeling of ‘Am I going to be okay?’ then we can respond in the way the child needs. Acknowledge their feelings and explain that it is normal to feel a little nervous:

‘Sounds like you are a bit nervous about school today, is that it? It can be scary, but it can also be a lot of fun making new friends and playing together. I felt the same way before I got into school but once I got there, I loved it.'

Keep the chatter up provides a distraction and staying relaxed and calm. Reminding them of other times they felt anxious (perhaps starting preschool) and how they settled quickly. Your belief in their ability to manage the new situation is critical: ‘You can do this by yourself’ provides the reassurance they need.

Child anxiety/anxious parent

Think about how you are. Often, the parent is anxious when the child is worried. Sometimes, your anxiety can actually become their anxiety. If you want your child to be able to do things for himself then act differently. When you change your response, their response will change. Manage your own anxiety for the sake of your child, by taking a deep breathe, talking positively and offering reassurance. Be consistent when saying goodbye for example: two kisses and then I am going to go. If the child is starting school, remember the teacher is very experienced in dealing with this situation and is best left to do so. If your child is not settling, she will tell you. Just ensure that the child’s anxiety is not about them but actually about ‘is Mum going to be okay!’

Anxiety - causes

Anxiety can happen especially during periods of change, when a child has fears or worries. The child needs to know what is going to happen as the unexpected can cause anxiety so talking through what will happen is vital.

Visit the school before the big day and familiarise our child with everything around the journey and the actual school. Make sure you have read all the communications from the school so you know what is going to happen in the school on the first day at at what stage and where you will have to drop off your child - make sure you have talked to your child about these arrangements so there are no surprises. Also take the time. to try on the uniform in advance, talk to them about how to toilet on their own, and how to behave at lunch.

Not being able to manage the required tasks causes anxiety so offer opportunity and take time to enable them with teaching them new tasks rather than doing everything for them.

Separation Anxiety – top tip

Reassurance, calm and relaxed works when your child facing a new situation

‘I know you will be okay Anne and we are going for coffee after pick up so I can hear all about it, bye love!’. Then go. The child may be upset briefly, but will be comforted by the teacher and distracted by the other children and they are assured that they can cope and manage which is important in building their confidence. Mirror out your confidence in them and then they see it in themselves and mirror it back to you over time. However, even a secure child can move from feeling solid to wobbly when faced with a new situation, so empathise and show belief and your child will adapt and manage.

This article was written by Sheila O Malley. Sheila owns Practical Parenting and offers courses, 1 to 1 support and School Talks as well as Company talks on Parenting and wellbeing. See for details. Book a One Day Saturday course from 10-4pm with a friend or partner and get the tips to need to support you in the hardest job you ever do!