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Navigating Separation Anxiety in Children

For many families, the beginning of the school year can bring on a number of mixed emotions as children begin their schooling or day care journeys. Feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, apprehension, curiosity, excitement, frustration, joy and sadness can be the rollercoaster of emotions experienced by many parents and their children.


One of the big challenges many parents describe is their child having a difficult time separating when it’s time for the school drop off. Parents may experience their children becoming very tearful and distressed, expressing feelings of anger, having meltdowns, looking fearful, clinging, and refusing to get out of the car. Parents may even hear their children describing physical symptoms such as stomach aches, nausea and headaches. Some children may even vomit in response to the anxiety.


Separation anxiety disorder (SAD) is a clinical term used to describe significant levels of anxiety that develop in response to separating or the anticipation of separating from a specific attachment figure. This typically occurs in approximately 4% - 10% of children. It is important to note that SAD is different to separation anxiety or difficulty separating, which tends to be much more common and often developmentally normal in children, particularly in infants and young children. When separation anxiety becomes so intense and distressing that it interferes with the child’s ability to function and learn, they may be struggling with SAD.


Below are some tips to assist you in navigating this challenging time:


  1. Remind yourself it’s all about survival. Your child’s instinct to stay connected to you comes from a place of survival. Do not expect your child to override this natural instinct. 

  2. Create connections for your child. If you can, try to visit the school, day-care centre or home that your child will be spending time at and introduce them to the care providers. It is important that YOU, as their trusted and loving big person, are the one making this introduction for your child and helping them to become familiar with their surroundings. 

  3. Find commonality. We tend to be drawn to people who are similar to us. Find something that your child may have in common with the care provider and make a point of sharing this with them. (e.g., “did you know Miss Lucy also loves playing the drums?” or Wow, did you see Mr Smith has the same colour eyes as you).

  4. Be a confident leader. Children are intuitive and very good at picking up on their big person’s cues. It is important to take the lead and embody confidence and be the person your child can trust will have the answers (even if you think you don’t). Use this as an opportunity to seek your own support if you are struggling with this too.

  5. Script it. As humans, we like to predict and control things. Uncertainty can feel daunting, especially for little ones. Create routine for your child and narrate for them what the day will entail. Visual schedules can be helpful for this. Avoid providing too many details but rather focus on the key parts of the day, and most importantly, the reunion and point of connection between parent and child. (e.g., “We are going to do this and then this. Then you will do this. I will then pick you up. We will then walk the dog together at the beach and I can’t wait to see you again”).

  6. Create a goodbye ritual. Never sneak away from your child. This can break their trust and put them on alert in future. Instead, create a special little goodbye ritual. This could be a hand gesture, a hug and kiss, or a phrase (e.g., “see you later alligator”). Try not to prolong the goodbye. Keep it short and sweet and then exit confidently.

  7. Bring supports on board. Asking your child’s care providers for support is essential. Ensure they are willing to come on board to support you and your child on this journey. This could mean asking them to direct them to an activity when you leave or holding them in loving arms as they cry. Remember, tears are ok as long as your child has a supportive and responsive adult to care of them during your absence.

  8. Seek professional support. Whether your child has difficulty separating or is experiencing SAD, seeking support from a qualified health professional is recommended particularly if it is impacting your child’s sleep, their ability to learn, if they are developing physical symptoms such as stomach aches or vomiting or if you as a parent are concerned.

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