Separation anxiety is considered a normal part of growing up. It is a normal process where separation from a loved one even for a short period of time causes significant distress. It be observed as a child begins to understand that people and things do not cease to exist just because they cannot be seen, heard, or touched. So once a child dropped at daycare or school for the first time realizes there is no familiar face around, it causes them to feel unsettled, ‘clingy’ and even afraid.
Interestingly, by the age of 3, a child understands very clearly the effect their crying and tantrums following separation have on their parents and caregivers so they may use this as a way of getting attention.
Children go through phases of protest, despair, and detachment when separation from a loved one occurs, and these feelings may last a long time. In children over the age of 6, when these feelings occur with a higher intensity, and last longer than four weeks, it may be referred to as Separation Anxiety Disorder.
Symptoms of separation anxiety (disorder) may include:
- Refusing to go to school
- Refusing to sleep alone
- Repeated nightmares about separation from loved ones
- Fear of being alone
- Being overly clingy even at home
- Frequent stomach aches, headaches, or other physical complaints especially when separation is anticipated
- Crying and temper tantrums at separation from caregivers.
- Excessive worry about the safety of a family member, worrying about them getting lost or sleeping away from home.
Overprotective parenting styles contributes significantly to separation anxiety. Actually, children can feed off the anxiety of their parents or caregivers so the anxious behaviours and evidence of distress may not belong to the child intrinsically, it may just be an extension of the parents’ own anxiety.
TIPS ON DEALING WITH SEPARATION ANXIETY
- Minimize stress before school starts– as schools resume and we all get back to being busy, we also need to prepare our children to help them ease back into the school routine. One way to do that is to create a routine that at the very least mirrors the sleep/wake cycles needed for school days. Make it fun, a special picture in their school uniform even before school starts, is an example.
- Minimize screen time– the million-dollar question here is how do we minimize screen time while at the same time avoiding tech tantrums? Children aged 2-5 years are recommended to have screen limit of one hour per day. Excessive screen time may reduce attention span, school readiness and may also be linked to language delay.
- Encourage creativity and imagination instead. A blank paper, crayons, markers, pencils, paint, chalk can inspire creativity in a child and is an excellent way of bonding.
- Encourage them to read. For children less than five or even children with delayed language skills, reading to them is a better way of engaging them than screens. Books with pictures and sensory stimulants are perfect.
- No screens while eating! At mealtimes, encourage your children to talk about their day, their favourite teacher or even their imaginary friend.
- Encourage physical activity. Phones, I-pads, laptops, etc. are not toys and should not replace activities that encourage a child to develop physical, cognitive, and socio-emotional skills. Physical activities help to expend some energy and promote development of fine and gross motor skills.
- You can substitute with background music to help your child go to sleep. Withdraw screens at least an hour before bedtime.
- If you must give your child an I-pad or any other device, pick out age-appropriate content, watch, and bond with them as much as possible.
- Take care of yourself and be aware of your own emotional cues- as parents, we are charged with the responsibility of taking care of ourselves and our little ones. The problem is that we forget to take care of ourselves a lot of the time. We work, interact with other adults, and get our emotions tested. Not everyone has the emotional intelligence to handle both intra and inter-personal relationships efficiently without those emotions spilling over to the home, work, and other spaces. So, know yourself, know what stretches you thin and be aware of how best to deal with those situations. Be willing to defer immediate expressions of strong emotions like anger for example, to avoid projecting them on your children.
Also, teach your child to recognize emotions and give a name to what they feel. Show them what a happy face looks like with a smile, a sad face, etc. squat down to their eye-level, calmly and gently talk to them about what they feel, what caused them to react the way they did if they are upset, and what they need to help them through it. A simple suggestion of ‘would a hug make you feel better?’ goes a long way in comforting a child. This would help them to build self-regulation skills and be able to manage their emotions better as well.
- Be consistent with parenting style- parenting styles affect a child’s growth, personality, self esteem, etc. Many children will behave better if parents follow through with words, promises, and do as they say they will. Bending the rules of parenting to accommodate a child’s tantrums teaches the child that they can do whatever they want, throw in a few tears, and get away with it. Make sure your rules are simple but firm, have routines. Routines help children learn self control, helps them prepare for what activity comes next.
- Practice separation- distress at separation is a normal reaction from a child who has built a trusting bond with the person they are being separated from. Your child will learn over time that when you leave you do return but before this happens, it is necessary to help them feel comfortable with not having you around. Play hide and seek, encourage them to play while you watch from a distance, walk away for graded minutes at a time after feeding or naps (separation anxiety is worsened by hunger, tiredness). Announce your departure from their immediate space so that they learn early that ‘mummy really does come back’.
- Make a gradual transition- you can start with part-time or half day childcare service. If for example, your maternity leave ends in three months, a way to transition is to drop your child off at the care center in graded time increments, until you hit the three month mark and then you can leave your child at the care center for a full day.
- Leave without fanfare- leave quickly and without fanfare but DO NOT SNEAK OUT! Sneaking out tells the child they cannot trust you and that they must keep an eye on you. Of course, if only they understood, but here is a fun fact…they do not! so it is our job to help them.
- Have quick goodbye rituals- having special practices at separation also helps to create some consistency. It will help them know what comes next and make separation easier. A special goodbye hug, a wave from the window, etc.
- Make the new environment somewhat familiar- it may also be helpful to keep one of their favourite toys in the school or childcare center. This would help create some form of comfort in distressing times.
- Try not to give in- be consistent and firm at separation. Let your child know why you must go, be aware of their tears and tantrums, reassure them that they will be fine, but do your best not to give in.
Sometimes as parents, we are the ones more anxious about dropping our children off at school or childcare centers. A major source of concern for working mothers especially is that when their child(ren) settle in eventually and get more comfortable with the teachers or childcare providers, they will not love them anymore. While this is a relatable fear, it is also untrue. The same way you as an adult can love more than one child, your child is also capable of loving more than one adult. Also, your relationship with your child is more intimate and comforting so while your child will settle in eventually at school or daycare, it does not mean they stopped loving you.
It can also help to get to know the teachers and other parents, get to know how the school or care center runs, build effective relationship with them through interactions. This way as you drop off your child, you know in whose hands you are trusting them to. Your child also watches your reactions to manage their own response towards the staff and other children. So, if as a mother or father you appear scared or worried, your child may mirror that too.
Dr Omowunmi H. Thanni is a physician with a medical degree from Olabisi Onabanjo University Ago-Iwoye (Mb.ChB. Ogun). She is an Infant and Childhood Mental Health enthusiast who is passionate about supporting children with mental health concerns.
She is also an Early Childcare practitioner with experience observing children dealing with grief, the various psychosocial presentations, and the impact on their families. She is also a Child and Family Volunteer who serves as a healthy support system for children and families who have experienced the loss of one or both parents to terminal illnesses.
She is devoted to debunking cultural myths surrounding childhood mental health and enlightening the community on proper prevention and intervention strategies.