Parenting

How to Ease your Child's Separation Anxiety

This article has been medically-reviewed by:

Separation anxiety disorder is a common concern, and even children who do not live with the full-blown condition may experience separation anxiety at times. As a parent, separation anxiety in children can be tough. Not only can it disrupt what you expect to get done in the day and cause stress for you, but it induces distress for your child. The good news is that it's possible to ease separation anxiety with techniques such as practicing separation appropriately and open communication. In this article, I'll outline what causes separation anxiety in children and how to handle it. Then, I will address when to seek professional help for separation anxiety in children. 

What Causes Separation Anxiety in Children?

Any child can experience separation anxiety, but not every child lives with separation anxiety disorder. At times, an anxious temperament may be to blame, but there are other factors that may increase the likelihood as well. 

Risk factors that increase the risk of separation anxiety in children include:

  • Parental history of an anxiety disorder
  • Loss of a parent, whether by death, divorce, or separation. 
  • Extensive parental absences (e.g., military deployment or incarceration). 
  • Household or parental conflict
  • Low levels of "warmth" or affection from parents
  • Foster care or adoption
  • Relocating (moving) to a new area 
  • Maternal alcohol consumption
  • Maternal smoking
  • Low birth weight

Parenting style, gender, and parental history of alcohol use disorder can also make an impact. Separation anxiety disorder in children is associated with higher rates of other disorders and adverse health outcomes later in life. With that in mind, there are ways to help your child overcome separation anxiety. 

How to Ease Your Child's Separation Anxiety

Consistency matters for children with separation anxiety. Use these tips on a regular basis to ease your child's separation anxiety. 

Communicate Openly With Your Child

It's important to verbalize your plans for the day with your child. This is especially true if you intend to separate from one another or otherwise intend to deviate from your routine. 

As much as it can be tempting to avoid letting a child know that you will be leaving them with a babysitter, for example, to avoid distress at that moment, it means that they will know what to expect. This is crucial for all kids; not just those with concerns related to separation anxiety. If you think about it, as an adult, if you didn't know who you were going to be with or where you were going that day, you would likely experience some distress. So, discuss plans in advance with your kids, too. 

It's often best to start ahead of time. For example, if they are getting a new babysitter in a week, discuss it now and help your child prepare. To do this, you might have the babysitter come over to meet your child with you present in advance and let your child know that that is who they will be spending time with when you're gone on a specific day. As the first day alone with the babysitter, or any other instance of separation, approaches (and again on the day of), explicitly state the amount of time you'll be gone. State and answer questions about what will happen before, during, and after. For example, "I'll leave at X. The babysitter will play games with you and help you get ready for bed. Then, I'll be home at X and will say goodnight." 

Similarly, if your child is about to start school, you can take them on a tour of the school in advance and discuss what it will be like to go to school - how long it lasts, when and where you'll drop them off and return, and so on. Of course, a child with separation anxiety may need to work up to instances like this through practice.  

Practice Separation

How do you practice separation to help a child with separation anxiety? Start small, and continue to communicate as you practice separation. Here are some small, manageable ways to practice separation: 

  • Step out briefly. For example, you may get the mail alone, get the newspaper alone, or grab something from your car alone, then come back in directly after.
  • Run a short errand such as a drugstore trip or pick up a takeout order alone while a trusted individual watches your child.

As time goes on, work up to separation that lasts for a longer period of time (e.g., an hour, two hours, three hours, etc.). Some parents may also use a reward system to help their child practice being apart. 

Make the Goodbye Short

It is best to make the goodbye short. Don't drag it out, as it can make things more challenging both for you and your child. Some parents find that a quick goodbye ritual is beneficial. For example, you may give your child a hug or a kiss on the cheek and say, "I'll be back at 3 PM," or "I love you and will see you tonight," right before you go. 

Acknowledge How Your Child Feels, But Don't Give In

It is healthy to validate how your child feels, and it is important to do so. Validation does not mean that you give in. Rather, it communicates that you care about and understand how your child feels. To do this, you may say something like, "I understand that you are scared of going to Kindergarten tomorrow. Even though you don't want to go, you are brave, and I know that you can do it." 

Keep Your Promise

It's essential to stay true to your word. Not just due to the moral component, but because it teaches your child that they can count on you to return. 

Think of circumstances where you discipline or reward your child. If you say that you'll give them a reward after they complete a task successfully, but you do not, they will likely learn that they can't trust you to provide a reward when you say you will in time. If you say that you'll discipline your child, but you do not, they'll learn that you don't mean it, which might lead them to continue to engage in the behavior because they can predict that there won't be a consequence. 

This is similar. If you show your children that you come back exactly when you say you will, it allows them to develop an intrinsic, fundamental sense of trust. 

When to Seek Professional Help

While parents can help kids who struggle with separation anxiety using tips like those listed above, every child is different. There are cases, such as those where a child has a severe and diagnosable separation anxiety disorder, where they may need more than what self-help or at-home methods provide. Here are some signs that it's time to seek professional help: 

  • If separation anxiety does not dissipate. 
  • If at-home changes and interventions do not help.
  • If separation anxiety becomes severe (e.g., if it disrupts your child's education or other parts of life). 

What does professional help for separation anxiety look like? Typically, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is the first line of treatment due to its high rates of efficacy and lack of adverse effects. While CBT is prevalent and may be the first line of treatment, it's not the only option. One study found that, following either twelve sessions of CBT or Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions (SPACE), 60% of children no longer met the criteria for any anxiety disorder and even more experienced a reduction in symptoms. If you notice that your child fears being alone or without you, has trouble sleeping without you, or shows overt distress related to separation from an attachment figure, discuss it with a medical or mental healthcare provider.

Takeaway

Every child is different, and some may need more help than others when it comes to separation anxiety. It is possible for children to overcome separation anxiety, and there are at-home tips that can help. If you believe that your child has separation anxiety disorder or otherwise needs additional support with separation anxiety, talk with a medical or mental health professional, such as a pediatrician, who can help you move in the right direction.