5 ways to combat separation anxiety

By Dominique Groenveld, Oh Beehave

Many children experience anxiety when they are in a situation where they need to be away from their parents for a period of time. For some children, just the thought of being away from their parents for even a few moments is almost too much to bear!

Unfortunately, there comes a point in all children’s lives when they need to be away from their parents for some reason or other (for example, some children go to day care while their parents are at work, while others go over-night or longer with friends or relatives when their parents travel for work, or a well-deserved break away).

Although there may be times when it is not possible to avoid being away from your child, there are some things you can do to help ease their anxiety:

1. Trial run

The way an infant or child responds to separation from a parent may depend on the nature of their attachment to the parent. Infants start to develop an attachment with their caregivers somewhere around 5 to 7 months of age. As such, you may find that around this age, your infant find’s it the most difficult to be separated from you.

It may be helpful to ease your child into a separation from you through a series of trials or visits.

For example, if you will be taking your child to day care, speak with the day care and ask if you can spend some time there with your child before you leave them for a longer period of time. Give them some time to get comfortable and play. If they appear to be settled and occupied, leave for a few moments (e.g. 5 mins or so) and then come back. Repeat this exercise a few times, gradually increasing the length of time you are away.

Return to play with your child until it is time to leave.

During this trial run, your infant learns they can become comfortable with their surroundings and familiar with the caregivers. Another important part of this trial run is that your child starts to understand that even though you have left you will always return.

2. Stay home

If it is possible, rather than have your child stay away from home, arrange for a person you trust to stay with your child at your house.

Your child may feel more comfortable and experience less anxiety when they are in the presence of things that are familiar to them.

3. Inclusive decision making

If you need to leave your child with someone else (e.g. while you are away for work), let them be part of the decision.

While they cannot decide whether or not you will need to leave them to be cared for by another person, they can decide, for example where to stay. You can give them a choice, such as

“Would you prefer to stay with Nanna and Gramps or Aunty Carol?”

Feeling like they have some choice and control over being away from you can help reduce their feelings of anxiety and any associated homesickness.

4. Comfort item

Some children’s separation anxiety is exacerbated when they are not only away from their parents, but also away from particular items of comfort (such as a teddy, blanket or pet), while other children harbour a fear that something might happen to their parents while they are way, or worry that their parents will not return.

Where possible, arrange for your child to take an item of comfort with them when they will be away from you.

If your child is particularly concerned that you may not return at the time you have agreed to pick them up, give them something of yours that they know is important to you (for example, a hair clip, ornament, piece of jewellery, your jacket or something else they know is special to you), ask them to look after it, and reassure them that you will return.

This can help reassure your child that you will return for both them and the item you have asked them to keep safe while you are away.

5. Something to look forward to

Before you leave your child, reassure them that you are looking forward to hearing all about their day.

If you are leaving them at day care or school, speak to the carer or teacher to find out what they will be doing that day. Tell them you’ll be thinking about them while they participate in whatever activity they are doing that day (e.g. painting, drawing, making ornaments, clay figurines etc.) and that you can’t wait to see it and display what they have created when you both get home.

This will also help your child to feel more confident that you will come back for them – after all they know you can’t wait to hear all about what they did all day!

Thurber, C. A., & Walton, E. (2007). Preventing and treating homesickness. Pediatrics, 119(1), 192-201.

Note: The views and advice expressed on this blog post are those of the author and are not representative of the Pregnancy Babies & Children's Expo.

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