This week, we’re shining the spotlight on Separation Anxiety – a common issue we support children and parents with here at The Youth Fairy. Whilst Separation Anxiety is something that is an expected part of development in babies (often experienced around 8 to 12 months) it is usually addressed by the age of 2 years. Sometimes, however, this anxiety can persist long into childhood and can hugely limit a child’s life and their ability to develop independence and confidence without the presence of a parent or caregiver.
What is Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety disorder is a strong and persistent fear of being away from parents or loved ones. Whilst all children will experience some initial separation anxiety, perhaps tears and showing signs of concern when trying a new activity or starting school, it is usual that this anxiety will be short-lived. With reassurance and parents returning when expected, children soon adjust to nursery, school, clubs, and other activities, as well as being left with other trusted adults.
What are the signs of Separation Anxiety?
NHS guidelines say that if evidence of strong and persistent fear of being left is observed for more than four weeks and includes 3 or more of the following signs, then there may be a need to seek professional help.
Signs that your child is experiencing separation anxiety include:
- Clinging to a parent when being left (this can be leaving the room, leaving at school, or at bedtime)
- Extreme, continued, and severe crying on being left
- Nightmares around separation
- Not wanting to sleep alone
- Refusal to engage in clubs, parties, or other activities which require separation
- Difficulties interacting with other children
- Headaches or vomiting
- Refusing to attend school
- Tantrums and emotional or violent outbursts associated with separation
What causes Separation Anxiety?
There are both environmental and biological reasons that a child may develop separation anxiety. If a parent suffers with anxiety, this may be a factor in a child developing Separation Anxiety. Separation anxiety can often follow a stressful or traumatic event in a child’s life.
These stressful events may be:
- Moving home
- Moving schools
- Or, death of a family member
If separation anxiety can be caused by stressful events, it is a not a surprise that the pandemic and resulting lockdown and home-schooling has had an adverse effect.
A number of children who may have had mild separation anxiety, which they may have overcome in beginning nursery or school, have found themselves having to navigate these stressful experiences all over again (having experienced a prolonged time of being almost exclusively with their parents and close family).
If we understand that a stressful or traumatic event (possibly alongside a parent also experiencing anxiety) can cause Separation Anxiety, what are the effects of those events on the brain that mean that a child no longer trusts or believes that a parent is going to remain safe and return at the agreed time?
- When we experience stress or anxiety, we experience an increased release of noradrenaline that signals to the brain and body that we need to be on high alert, that there may be danger all around.
- The amygdala, the fight/flight area of the brain, has the primary role of protecting us and, when it’s on high alert, it constantly checks for danger. When this happens, it hijacks the rest of our brain, the intellectual mind, which allows us to make a proper assessment of the situation.
- When children experience separation anxiety and the amygdala has hijacked their brain, it is almost impossible for them to recall the truth – that you always return, that you always make sure they are safe. In fact, because their brain has been hijacked in order to keep them safe, they are only able to scan and respond to danger. They are unable to be reasoned with. You may have noticed this happen when a child has a tantrum – that part of their brain that can enter into a conversation with you has completely shut down.
- In addition to anxiety causing an increase in stress hormones, such as noradrenaline and cortisol, your child will also be experiencing a lack of serotonin, one of the happy hormones which help us to be positive and confident and more able to cope with everyday stresses and challenges.
How can you help?
There are two ways that we can help our children when they are experiencing Separation Anxiety. One is to help them to reduce the stress response and the other is to increase their serotonin.
- Remember, practice makes perfect. Well, it might not make it perfect initially, but it will certainly help. Leaving your child for short periods of time, doing this often, and returning at the agreed time, will help to compensate for the fear your child has that either you won’t return or that something might happen to you while you are separated. You can begin to increase the length of separation slowly over time.
- Stick to a routine. – alongside giving opportunities for your child to experience regular times of separation (and your returning), a routine will also help. Avoid boomerang exits – leaving and returning several times over whilst checking that they are coping, this can lead to confusion and not believing that you have left, then being on a constant lookout for your return. Be clear about when you are leaving and when you are returning.
- Be positive. Remind them of the good things they are going to be doing while you are gone and what you will do when you pick them up. Ask positive questions such as, what are you looking forward to? What was good last time…? Avoid leading questions such as, are you worried about me leaving you?
- Provide connection. It can be helpful to have a small item from you or from home that they have a positive connection with. It could be a piece of material, a small toy, or a pebble. This can be something to remind your child that you will be thinking of them and that you will return. It is good if this is something small and not distracting so that they can still engage positively in the activities.
- Validate their feelings. This is so important to do when they share how they feel but remind them again of the positive experiences they have had before when away from you and that everyone was safe and returned.
- Communicate clearly and honestly. It can be tempting to say you will be back in ten minutes when really you are going to return to pick them up at the end of the school day. This creates uncertainty for your child and gives their brain a good reason to be on high alert next time. Let them know what the options are if they are struggling to cope. For example, a teacher they can be with one to one, or if there is an activity they can do to help them settle at school.
- Try not to completely shield them from their anxiety. It may be difficult and distressing for you as a parent to watch as your child struggles into school. Perhaps your initial instinct may be to protect them from these feelings by avoiding those triggers. Remember, though, that it is so important that children build up their levels of control by taking small steps towards overcoming their anxiety – and this can only happen by experiencing these difficult situations in small amounts and learning ways to cope.
- Plan ahead. Have a plan for events that you know may be difficult and let them know so that they can ask questions and not be surprised by the event.
Help your child to visualise positive scenarios. Our brains are amazing and one of the wonderful things is that our brains can’t tell the difference between imagination and reality. This, however, can also be one of the factors in embedding your child’s anxiety. For example, there may have been an occasion when you were late collecting your child (or even when they just imagined that you were). If your child worries about this over and over again, the brain can create imagined ‘memories’ that exacerbate your child’s fear. But you can harness this power too – you can remind your child and help them to vividly imagine and recall all the times when they had fun without you and you returned as promised and collected them. Tell them in great detail using as many of the senses as you can. Now the brain is creating EXTRA positive ‘memories’ which can support your child in being able to cope better with, and overcome, their separation anxiety.
In babies and toddlers, Separation Anxiety is part of their development, however if your child is still struggling with this and you can see it is impacting their ability to enjoy activities then they may be in need of some assistance to overcome this. If you are concerned speak to your GP and to your child’s school. Schools will often have support available to help your child transition into school and support them in feeling safe at school. Many children have had a disrupted experience of transitioning into school due to Covid and may need some additional support.
Remember, this fear is very real for your child, they are fearful that you will not return or that something will happen to you or to them if you are not together.
If you believe that your child may be suffering from Separation Anxiety Disorder, please contact your GP, school, or one of the Youth Fairies who will be able to offer you additional support or information.
All our Youth Fairies offer a one-hour free consultation: https://www.theyouthfairy.com/fairies/
General information and support can also be found at: