Does your child get upset and refuse to go to bed? Do they seem afraid or anxious when you drop them at day care or school? 

Anxiety due to separation is an age appropriate part of early childhood, and can vary from putting a child to sleep alone in their bed, to leaving them with a carer or teacher at school. Separation Anxiety can occur anywhere from 6 months to 4 years of age, and is different for each child. A child starting a new learning program such as day care, pre-school or kindergarten, can be a daunting experience for them. Especially if it is the first time they are separating from their parent or care giver for an extended period of time. Some children embrace the change, others feel shy, anxious or afraid at the thought of being left.

Signs that your child may have separation anxiety –

  • They refuse to go to school
  • Display reluctance to go to sleep
  • Complain of physical illness like headache or tummy ache regularly
  • Clinging to the parent or care giver

Common causes of separation anxiety –

  • Change in environment – a new house, new school first day or school or day care
  • Stress – situations like switching schools, the loss of a loved one (including a pet), or if a parent needs to be rushed to hospital
  • Over-protective parent – Constant checking, reassurance seeking and excessive restrictions by the parent can result in the child believing the environment to be more dangerous than it really is

Strategies to support young children through this developmental stage –

  • Always make sure your child will be safe and well looked after wherever you are planning to leave them, so you have the confidence that they will be fine
  • Always say goodbye – even if you have to leave whilst your child is upset. This builds up trust with your child. Sneaking out may break this trust barrier
  • Leave the child with a comfort item – maybe a soft toy or a dummy, or a little photo album with photos of the family they can look at
  • Be reliable – always come back when you have told your child you will
  • Have lots of practice separations at home. Play peek-a-boo, or hide and seek. Go outside, or into another room where they can’t sometimes see you, so they can realise that you are not far away
  • Read stories about separations to your child
  • Keep calm, and for children who are old enough, explain to them that you will be come back, and when
  • Praise their efforts, e.g. going to bed without a fuss, getting an award or good school report
  • Minimise scary television – this reduces their behaviour to be fearful
  • Schedule separations after naps or feedings – babies are more susceptible to separation anxiety when they are tired or hungry

Is separation anxiety affecting you as a parent?

If you as a parent are stressed about the impending leaving of your child, or putting them to bed each night, the child may sense this. There are measures parents and care givers can take to become calm and focussed.

  • Talk about your feelings – expressing what situations you are in with your child can be very cathartic
  • Exercise regularly – physical activity plays a key role in reducing stress levels
  • Eat healthy – a well-nourished body is better prepared to cope with higher levels of stress
  • Practice relaxation – yoga or deep breathing can relax your mind and body
  • Sleep – feeling tired will only increase your stress, so stay well rested

Your own patience and know-how can go a long way toward helping your child with separation anxiety. But some children may need professional intervention. If you feel you need further assistance with your child, to progress through this stage of anxiety and stress, please contact Creating Change on 02 8883 3185 where we can help.

Written by Rebecca Deane (Senior Clinical Psychologist) –

Separation Anxiety child