5 tips for parenting a child with separation anxiety

It’s that time of year again. A new school year is beginning and many of you can relate to this scenario:

You’re trying to get ready for work and you’re already running 10 minutes behind schedule. You tell your 6-year-old daughter it’s almost time to leave for school and it begins.

“No, mommy! Please don’t leave me there today. I don’t want to go today! I don’t feel good. My belly hurts!”

And it continues until you get to school.

You peel her off your leg and hustle out the door feeling TERRIBLE. And so begins another stressful work week.

Separation anxiety feels terrible for your child. They sometimes work themselves up to a full-blown state of panic. But it’s also very stressful for parents. Who wants to tackle a stressful day at work after leaving a screaming, seemingly terrified child at school?

If this is you, here are a few tips that will make separation go more smoothly for you and your child.

Timing is everything.

For starters, make sure your child is not tired or hungry if at all possible. Each of these will lead to a bigger episode of separation anxiety. Try to make sure she had a full night’s sleep and had breakfast or at least a healthy snack before it’s time to leave. Being tired or hungry are huge triggers for all types of emotional outbursts, not just separation anxiety. Do your best to manage these two and you’re off to a good start.

Tip No. 2: Preparation is key.

Recipe for disaster: Take her to the first day of school or to a new day care without talking about it ahead of time, explaining what the day will be like or explaining what will happen before she sees you again. She has no understanding of what will happen, how long it will be before you come back or even when you will see her again. A perfect storm for anxiety to intensify.

Recipe for success: Practice being apart from each other for shorter periods of time before a planned longer stay at day care or beginning school. Maybe take her to a new sitter’s house for a visit with you a few times before her schedule there begins, for example. Talk openly about what will happen at the new school or day care before she starts. Maybe even a visit ahead of time if that’s possible so she knows what the room looks like, who the teachers are and so on. This will help her feel more comfortable and less anxious when the big day arrives.

Tip No. 3: Be calm.

When it’s time to say goodbye, say it in a loving and pleasant way, but be firm. Stay calm. If you’re a sobbing mess, then she will pick up on your anxiety about leaving her, which only makes it worse for both of you. Reassure her when you’ll be back and then leave. Don’t come back multiple times to comfort her, no matter how hard it is. Coming back just reinforces her crying and pleading and things will get out of hand very quickly if you do this in the beginning.

For example, you could say something like: “I love you. I will see you at 4 p.m.”

But don’t say things like: “We’re going to make it through. I know it’s terrible being apart.”

Tip No. 4: Follow through.

Make sure you come back when you promised. This builds trust and security, the enemies of anxiety. And the more her trust in you grows, the less separation anxiety will be an issue in the future.

Tip No. 5: Leave a reminder.

It may help to give your child a picture of your family to take along. She can take a quick look at the picture if she’s feeling alone and this could help her calm down and prevent a bigger issue. I say “may” here because there are situations where this reminder causes the anxiety to re-occur or worsen each time she looks at it. Try it, but don’t continue if the teacher says it’s making things worse.

Just remember, in most cases separation anxiety is only temporary. It’s a phase most children go through at one point or another and will typically pass swiftly if you handle it the right way.

If your child’s separation anxiety is more intense or persists after you’ve tried the tips above, it could require professional support.

If your child:

* Is convinced that something bad will happen to you when you are separated

* Has nightmares about separation

* Is afraid of sleeping alone on an ongoing basis

* Has panic symptoms (nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath) at just the thought of leaving you

* Has an excessive fear of being kidnapped or lost

Then it may be time to contact a trained professional who can help you and your child move past the anxiety and start enjoying more relaxed transitions to school or day care.

As always, I welcome any questions or feedback.

Just email me at shannona@tenderheartschildtherapycenter.com.

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