Whether you’re facing a new school year, a daycare or camp, or just leaving children with a babysitter, children can feel stressed by being away from their caregivers. This stress or fear is a normal part of development. You can help ease their nerves and feelings of separation anxiety with a few simple steps.
How can I help my child cope?
Most separation fears can be resolved with some practice. Before an anticipated separation – before is key, because some of these techniques are not as successful once a child is already upset during separation – discuss and practice a separation and reunion routine with your child. A few techniques to try:
- Practice small separations to help your child learn they can cope when you are away. You might try setting a timer for a few minutes while you go a short, safe distance away out of sight.
- Coach them on specific ways they can cope. You may explain what you plan to do when you start missing them!
- After the practice, praise them for their bravery and check-in on how it felt for them.
- Small rewards such as stickers, toys or special treats can be paired with separation practice for extra motivation.
You can practice by talking to your child who doesn’t like to separate by saying something like: “<Child’s Name>, I know having a new classroom is exciting, but you might feel nervous until you get used to it. I am sure you will be brave so you can have fun and learn with your friends and new teacher. I am excited to see you after school and hear all about your day! We’ll practice now and at the end of the day, we can have a special snack for doing great at drop-off.”
Then you can practice saying goodbye. You may let your child decide if they want a hug or kiss, a wave or another hand sign to help them as you leave.
This practice helps a child get used to their feelings when separation happens, and it also reinforces your belief they will be successful, as most children will be.
When children do well with parting, offering small rewards and praise will also help them grow more comfortable with the routines you’ve practiced.
When should I worry?
Separation anxiety disorder is characterized by excessive fear of separation from a caregiver that substantially limits a child’s (and family’s) ability to engage in activities.
It typically isn’t diagnosed in children younger than age 3, since hesitation around separation and reunions with caregivers are expected before that age. This pattern of excessive distress must be ongoing for about a month before it reaches a clinical level.
Some signs of excessive worries include:
- Intense or tearful emotions before, during and/or long after the separation
- Repeated attempts to avoid separating from you (begging, hiding your keys, etc.)
- Repeatedly checking in or asking for reassurance about when you will return
If you’re seeing these signs in your child, contact your pediatrician or a mental health provider.
Separation worries are common, but there are steps you can take to help children who are struggling with being apart from a parent or caregiver.
Sometimes, your children may be more excited than you are to start these new chapters in their lives and you may be the one with a little hesitation to separate! If that’s the case, make sure to give yourself a little extra self-care.