Helping Children Through Separation Anxiety
Updated: Jan 3
The experience of starting school, kindy or daycare is different for everyone and it is quite natural for children (and parents) to feel nervous about how it will go. With so many little ones starting school last week it seems timely to write about separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety is a common and normal fear that securely attached children have of being away from their parents or carers. This makes sense really because parents are the very first people with whom children become emotionally attached. Parents are the ones who fill them with their sense of security and provide a safe space from which they may explore. It also makes sense that experiencing separation from these special people with whom they are strongly attached could leave them feel vulnerable and afraid. Young children perceive this separation as a very real threat to their very survival and accordingly hang on for dear life. To make matters worse they cannot process this experience logically.
Separation anxiety begins anywhere from one year of age and usually dissipates during early childhood, though for some children lasts much longer. And for some parents lasts much longer. Separation anxiety presents itself in many ways, from screaming and tantrums to crying and clinginess. It can also vary in intensity from mild jitters to excruciating, heartfelt distress.
For some, the start of school is barely a bump in the road, with the child running off to play while Mum stands alone in the playground feeling superfluous and wondering whether or not she should wait for her goodbye kiss.
Equally, many children are elated for the first few days, even the first few weeks, when there is the novelty of new toys and children to play with, songs to sing, places to explore and teachers to meet. For many parents, just as they are breathing a sigh of relief that the transition to school has gone smoothly, the reality of school sets in for the child. It dawns on them that school is every day, 5 days a week and you don’t get to do what you want all the time and some of the other kids are not that nice and you do really miss your Mummy.
For other children the first time leaving Mum or Dad is agonising. We can all picture an inconsolable child, a distraught parent and a teacher looking on feeling helpless. The parent-child bond is a sacred, special thing. Despite their most kind-hearted, well-meaning efforts, teachers stand at the perimeter of this separation, at least until they have built a rapport with your child and can help ease the transition. It can be gut wrenching for everyone.
I’ve been all of these Mums (and also that teacher too, if truth be told). Surprisingly, it was my eldest who left without a backward glance. Not once to this day has he even thought about missing me. Despite my nervousness at leaving him (he is my first child after all), he’s never been fazed about separating from me, not even as a toddler.
My youngest, the one who had been in around school and teachers, traipsing after her older brother for three years before her turn came around, the one who was familiar with rowdy kids and classroom activities. It was her who clung tighter than a mollusk on a rock and almost needed a crowbar to pry her from me. It was for her that separating was painful.
Each year for the past 5 years she has been peeled off my leg at the start of the school year, held and comforted by supportive teachers until the tears subsided, while I’ve quietly slinked back to the car before letting my own tears fall.
I tell you that, not to gain pity, but rather to highlight that as with most things related to children, both nature and nurture are at play. On nature’s side, children have different personalities and temperaments and will therefore react differently to being separated from their parents. On nurture’s side there is a lot we can do to support our children through transitions such as starting school. Either way, there are no hard and fast rules of what you should or shouldn’t do to help them. I encourage you to do what feels right for you and your child and also what works for your personal circumstances.
If things are going well for you now, hold tight and let’s cross our fingers and toes that your child goes from strength to strength. If your child is struggling from the get go please keep reading. There are so many things you can do to ease you child’s heartache (and yours too!). And if in a few weeks time you find yourself in one of the scenarios above, you can always return here for a few tips.
This year was a break through for us because my daughter has happily skipped off to school with very little fuss. A bit of complaining about the holidays having come to an end and about the teacher being too strict, but without the clinginess of past years (and I’m crossing my fingers and toes for myself that she now goes from strength
I mention this because I’m sure that some of this year’s successful transition is due to maturity and is part of her natural and progressive development. It can’t be particularly attributed to her teacher (as lovely as she is, because my daughter’s teacher last year was just as lovely) or her class of students (because they are essentially the same kids). I must say that I have been less anxious this year but is that because I was less worried or is it because she was less worried and was she less worried because I was less worried? It is a bit of a chicken and egg situation and I suppose it doesn’t matter who was less worried first, it is true that the two are inextricably connected.
Many Grandma’s will attest to the old adage that an anxious mum makes for an anxious child and equally that a calm mum makes for a calm child. There is certainly truth in this. Truth which is now supported by neuroscience, which has identified neurons, aptly named “mirror neurons” because the neurons in a child’s brain mirror the neurons in their mother’s brain (or any other person with whom they are closely attached). And vice versa, a mother’s neurons can mirror their child’s brain chemicals. Without going deeply into the science, our stress levels or relative calm can most definitely have an impact on our children.
Keep Own Feelings In Check
Our children pick up on our cues so managing your own feelings (anxiety, fear, worry, sadness) can be a big help to your child. In the lead up to dropping your child off, intentionally keeping yourself calm can make a huge difference. It can also take many forms; the self talk you use (even talking/thinking out loud, as this models self soothing to your child), remembering to breathe deeply and slowly, putting on some music you both enjoy, making sure you’re organised well in advance to reduce the stress of the morning rush, getting enough sleep. Talk with a supportive friend or family member or if you are feeling personally triggered by the separation or if you feel as though it is overwhelming you, seek help from a professional.
There is no finger pointing at the mums about this though because we are all human, we all feel and experience things differently and we all respond to our children starting school in our own way. As you’ve heard from my experience and most probably know from your own, children also respond differently, even those from the same family. So as well as our stress levels, our child’s temperament plays a role in separation anxiety.
Whilst you can’t change your child’s personality or temperament, there are things that you can do to support your child.
Listen to Worries
One of the most effective things you can do is listen to your child’s concerns. When we reassure them or offer solutions, they may be left feeling unheard. A common response is that they then grow louder and fiercer in their refusal to separate because they don’t think you’ve got the message yet. They escalate their behaviour in a desperate attempt to get you to take notice. Make a point to listen to their worries rather than dismissing them. This may take place in the moment or at another time when the child is calm. Their worries might seem silly or trivial to us, however they are very real to them. If possible, allow extra time to listen and connect before saying farewell.
Involve Your Child
Involve your child in finding a solution can also assist. Children are more likely to follow through with something if they have had input. Ask them how they would like to say goodbye. Where would they like to say goodbye? Who would they like to be with when it is time to say goodbye?
A Goodbye Ritual
Developing a consistent goodbye ritual can help ease the anxiety. In kindergarten my daughter loved me putting imaginary kisses in her pocket so that if she was feeling sad or thinking about me during the day she could take one out. It became a language she could use to tell me about her day. “I nearly ran out of kisses today. I might need extras tomorrow.” “I had so much fun today. I still have heaps of kisses left in my pocket!” Whatever you do, do not sneak out! This will only serve to add additional panic and increase your child’s anxiety the next time.
Also be consistent in your return. Be on time and even if you are desperate to find out how they’ve gone during the day, calm your own nerves before greeting them. Once again, try to manage your own strong or uncomfortable feelings. Sometimes simply acknowledging them allows them to dissipate.
If you anticipate that your child is going to struggle separating from you there are many practical things you can do.
Trial runs. Most kindys and schools conduct transition programs, however if you think your child needs more time, then ask if you and your child can visit for short periods in the lead up to official start.
A special toy. A comfort toy, blanket, even a special item of yours may help. Be clear when these items can and can’t come out at school.
Plan ahead. Be organised to avoid the rushed goodbye.
Connect with the carer. Build a positive relationship and line of communication with your child’s teacher or carer.
Something to look forward to. Make a list with your child of things that you can do together at the end of the day.
At other times away from school, give your child loads of love and attention! Reconnecting, both physically and emotionally at the end of day, helps your child to release any built up tension from the day.
Laughing, playing, talking, cuddling and spending time together are powerful healers. You can never overdo them.