Don’t Leave Me! How to deal with separation anxiety in children

Compiled by clinicians from the Psychological Health Center at Beijing United Family Hospital and Clinics

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What do you do when your child is screaming because she’s completely unwilling to be separated from you? All too often, parents deal with these types of situations by imposing more separation between them and their children. This is the worst way to handle separation anxiety.

What is separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety is defined as anxiety caused in a young child by separation or the threat of separation from his/her parent(s). In many ways, dealing with separation anxiety is similar to dealing with other types of anxiety. You need to give your child more attention, not less.

In the first two years of life, children need a lot of physical and emotional attention. When they get it, they become emotionally resilient and learn to comfort themselves in ways they’ve learned from their parents. Separation anxiety tends to develop in children who have experienced a rupture in their relationship with their parents. A parent who is under a lot of stress, traumatic family experiences or inconsistent displays of affection can contribute to the development of separation anxiety in the child.

Consistency with affection is the key. Parents who provide consistent affection help children feel secure. Complete refusal to provide affection result in “pseudo-independent” children who assume that they can only rely on themselves to provide everything they need. Inconsistent affection results in feelings of anxiety related to separation.

Types of behavior in relationships
According to Dr. Stan Tatkin in his book Wired for Love, people develop one of three types of behavior, in romantic relationships:

– Anchors, as their name implies, are secure in relationships. They know how to receive nurture and give nurture.

– Islands are the aforementioned “pseudo-independent” types. They aren’t familiar with receiving nurture, so they don’t give it. They’re who we commonly think of as the “strong, silent type,” kind of like James Bond.

– Waves are unstable in relationships. There was likely some stress on the relationship at some point resulting in increased difficulty with separation. Their relational instability manifests in a variety of ways. Waves often choose islands as romantic partners because islands seem so stable.

This model also applies to parent-child relationships. Parents don’t have to be perfect to be anchors. They just need to help their children establish a secure base from which to explore the world.

Teaching children about comfort
It’s comforting for children to be close to their parents. Children learn to cope with anxiety by receiving parental comfort. For example, there tends to be a lot more co-sleeping in Asian cultures, which is much healthier for a child’s emotional state than the trend in Western cultures of putting children in another room, or as they get older, putting them in front of the TV or computer.

When dealing with a child who is experiencing separation anxiety, you should actually spend MORE time with the child, not less. Although this may seem counter-intuitive, spending more time with children actually helps them get over their anxiety faster. A child with separation anxiety isn’t emotionally resilient; something has stalled in his emotional development. Unaddressed, this condition could lead to a lot of symptoms we see in adults – e.g. the boyfriend or girlfriend who won’t stop calling, the overly jealous spouse, the person who yo-yo’s between being the center of attention and depression etc. The earlier we deal with separation anxiety, the better.

Consistent attention from parents communicate to children that their emotions are important. Children learn to trust that their parents will respond if they need to be comforted. Being secure in this understanding (especially between ages 3 and 5) is the mark of an emotionally healthy child. Of course, all children are different. Some are more prone to be anxious than others. But all children need parents who are consistently responsive to their emotional needs.

When your child is experiencing separation anxiety, try some of these strategies :
– A short 4-step process:
Provide a quick hug and verbal reassurance that you’ll be back.
Keep your tone of voice neutral.
Ask the teacher/caregiver to engage the child in an activity and leave quickly.
Greet your child enthusiastically upon your return.
– Practice with your child, leaving her/him with the caregiver for brief periods and short distances at first.
– For babies, schedule separation after naps and feedings.
– Develop a goodbye “ritual” such as a special wave or a goodbye kiss.
– Have a consistent caregiver.
– Leave without fanfare. Tell your child you will go, reassure her, and leave without stalling.
– Reassure your child that s/he will be fine.

Am I a bad parent?
No, you are not a bad parent. Any parent who is doing their best to take care of their children will never be a bad parent. The development of separation anxiety in a child is no one’s fault. Once the family becomes aware of the condition, it is important for the parents to look for ways to increase their engagement with the child in a healthy, playful manner.

It’s a good idea in general for parents to engage their children and stay completely in the present when playing with them. Reassure your child with your voice and touch. Try to repair any inconsistencies that may have caused the anxiety they are experiencing.

If the anxiety your child experiences is interfering with normal activities (e.g. school, friendships), lasts for months, or is so intense that just the thought of separation causes agitation, this may be a sign that your child needs professional help.

If you would like to discuss any challenges that your child is facing, please do not hesitate to contact us at the BJU Psychology Department at (010) 5927 7067.

Additional resources
To read more about separation anxiety and how to handle it in children, here are some sites and content I recommend:

[1] Tatkin, S. Wiredfor Love. New Harbinger Publications: 2012.
[1] Rosenberg, I.D. “Attachment and Separation Anxiety.” 2012.