Twelve Ideas for Helping Your Child with Separation Anxiety

Kelly Lash, LPC and Susan M. Doak, LPC, Newberg Counseling and Wellness
Header photo by Nicholas Githiri, Pexels

Having spent the last six months together in quarantine, we are hearing from many parents about how their children are increasingly having problems being away from their parents. Families with children who plan to attend school this fall may start to see signs of anxiety associated with this transition. And even before school begins, or outside of the school issue, you may be finding that leaving your child with her grandparents or getting your son to go to bed at night is becoming more difficult. Why is this happening? The problem could be some form of what we might call “separation anxiety.” Simply put, separation anxiety is a particular kind of anxiety associated with the fear of being away from home or not physically present with loved ones. (If you want to read more on this in a technical sense, check out this article by Stanford Children’s Health.)

Kelly Lash, LPC (left), and Susan Doak, LPC (right)

COVID-19 has dramatically changed the way families are relating to the outside world. Do we go to that birthday party? What about the library? Is it safe to see grandparents and older relatives? Should I have my child do the online dance class or the one in person? Can my kids see their friends? What about school?

Our children are like emotional sponges, taking in our emotions. Because of this, we have to be very aware of the role we play in their emotional lives. You are their whole world! No wonder they are scared of losing you. Here are twelve ways we can begin to address anxiety around separation that we see in our children:

(1) Be open for them to express themselves and their worries when they need. Often there is trauma that is caused the separation anxiety. Be open to them talking about the trauma and actively listen to them (“I hear you saying that you feel afraid, is that right?”). Validate your child’s feelings whenever they are feeling fear or worry: “I know it’s scary…I know it’s so hard…awww honey…I’m sorry you’re feeling this way.” It is normal and OK to for them to worry about this. Other kids deal with these feelings too. In their mind, there IS something to be very scared about that may happen, no matter how irrational or unlikely it is. 

(2) Respond with love and acceptance. Just because they are physically separate from you doesn’t mean they are separated in spirit. Tell them when you are with them that you are always still thinking about them and loving them when you are gone. That’s what makes the time together even better! Remind your child throughout the day and at bedtime that they and you are safe. 

(3) Read books before bedtime that have loving and supportive messages. The Invisible String is one example that we really like (click here for a YouTube reading of the book).

(4) Spend one-on-one time with your child each day. Shoot for at least 30 minutes, if possible, to remind them of your connection.

(5) Write it out. Encourage them to write their feelings and thoughts in a journal when you are away from them. Drawing, collage, or other artistic expressions works well also.

(6) Have a backup person. Identify a safe person that they can go to or call when you are gone or unavailable. Be sure to help this safe person understand the strategies you are currently using to support your child.

(7) Make a plan, and stick to it. Have set times that are clearly communicated with your child about when you will arrive home, and let them know what you plan to do when you are away. For example: “I will be going to the grocery store first, then work from 10-2pm, then I will be stopping by your grandparents until 4 at the latest, and should be home by 4pm.”

(8) Use exposure to separation to get them gradually used to being away from you. Start with small and manageable goals. Each day, spend 15 minutes away from them, while taking a walk or going down the street to the store for a quick errand. Then, work up to longer periods of time being gone. After a few days, if they are OK with it, go to 30 minutes, then an hour, and so on. If they become anxious, have a plan for what they can do, in writing, that they can refer to: talk to a family member or friend, play a game, play in backyard, read a book, draw, relaxing music, deep breaths, count to ten, make a card or picture for their parent to give to them when they return, spend time in cozy corner, write in journal, or make a “calm box.”

(9) Have a clear boundary and plan of how and when they can contact you while you are away. Be clear about when and how much texting and calling is appropriate and when you will be unable to respond to texts and calls.

(10) Provide some lead time. Give your child a heads up before the times you will be gone for a while, have it on a calendar in the house where they can see.

(11) This won’t be forever! Know that children grow out of this, it will not be this way forever. 

(12) The number one rule: Remember, always respond with love and acceptance and you cannot go wrong. 

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