It can feel heart rendering when you need to peel your toddler or little one from your leg to allow them to go into nursery or school.  This is something that all parents will face at one stage or another.  I have certainly had my fair share of difficult goodbyes over the years between the children starting nursery and school and I know that it is not easy.

Separation anxiety tends to coincide with the developmental phase that infants go through between 8 – 10 months when babies become clingy.  This stage tends to peak around 18 months and then slowly declines and disappears between 2 and 3 years.  A difficulty of parent-child separation that lasts for longer than is expected or is more severe in nature is called Separation Anxiety Disorder.  It is characterised by recurrent and high levels of distress in the child in the anticipation of separation from a primary attachment figure (parent or carer).  It tends to affect girls and boys equally although there is some research that suggests girls are more vulnerable.   To be recognised as Separation Anxiety Disorder, symptoms must have been ongoing for at least four weeks.  The difficulties may be causing distress and disruption to school life, with friends, more general social interaction and/or family life.

Separation Anxiety Disorder may manifest itself as:

  • Separation protest (crying, clinging, shouting, hitting, kicking)
  • Physical complaints such as tummy aches, headaches, nausea, vomiting and bedwetting
  • Sleep disturbance including not wanting to sleep alone
  • Change in eating patterns including eating more, less or being ‘picky’
  • Concentration difficulties
  • Anger/irritability and being ‘out of control during outbursts’
  • Feeling tense and fidgety
  • Needing to use the toilet more often

As adults, it can be difficult to rationalise a childs level of distress in the moment of separation.  It’s hard to understand when, as adults, we know that our child does not realistically face any danger and is not going to come to any harm.  However, when we consider the child response from an evolutionary perspective, separation from attachment figures would have meant quick death in the hunter gatherer era.  The need for proximity to the attachment figure came above the need for food and water and only secondary to oxygen for survival.  In this context it makes more sense that in stressful situations including ‘newness’ (starting nursery, school, whilst on holiday), illness, pain and sudden changes to routine children seek safety and comfort in the protection of the attachment figure.  In a child’s mind the danger is a realistic threat to their safety and a childs panic system is set off resulting in discomfort and requests for help.  It is through a parent’s consistent, loving and calm response to the child along with providing a secure base (an adult to whom the child can turn as a safe haven, when upset or anxious) that the child can learn to explore their environment, learn to trust in others and in themselves.  As humans we seek comfort in other fellow human beings in the face of fear.  These most basic biological mechanisms are difficult for children to ‘unlearn’.

If parents or carers have had difficult early parenting experiences, an adults separation from their child may be difficult for them and this disorder is also applicable to adults.  Children may become aware of their parents discomfort and become fearful of separation. If a family has experienced a lot of life changes (move of house, schools, nursery, parental separation) or trauma (death in the family, illness or accidents) this can cause separation to become difficult.

Whilst it is helpful to understand the background to separation anxiety, it is important to know that there are a number of practical strategies that you can put into place to support your child:

  1. Schedule separations after nap times and meals so that your child is not tired or hungry which will make things feel more difficult.
  2. Prepare your child for separation and take their feelings seriously. Be reassuring that you will return “I know that you don’t want me to go away but I will be back after school”.  It can be tempting to ‘sneak away’ to avoid having to deal with the immediate distress.  However, this is likely to make your child more fearful and clingy in the long term.
  3. Practice separations. Work with your friends or family to practise leaving your child for short periods initially.  For example, popping out to the shop for 15 minutes.  If things are very tricky and your child finds it hard to tolerate being in a different room at home start by popping to the kitchen.  Explain what you are doing, “I’m going to go and get a glass of water and then I’m going to come straight back”.
  4. Remain calm, matter of fact and understanding to your child. This will help you both even if you don’t feel calm! If your child sees you become distressed, this will increase their panic reaction and lead them to believe that there really is something to be worried about!
  5. Try not to prolong goodbyes.
  6. Give your child a comforter; It can be helpful to give your child something of yours to hold (scarf or top that smells familiar) on separation. Alternatively, just making sure that they have their favourite cuddly will help.  This is particularly important if the separation is out with the home environment i.e. at nursery.
  7. Be consistent and return when you say you will return. Trying to make a child feel better by saying that you will be away for a shorter time than is actually the case can lead to increased worry about future separations.
  8. Look after yourself!  Research confirms that happy parents make for happy children. Remember to make time for you: to relax; exercise; eat healthily; and try to get enough sleep.

Whilst some may say that separation anxiety is ‘just a phase’ that children go through it doesn’t make it any easier to cope with!  It can help to talk to friends and family about the challenges of parenting and they can often help you to maintain a sense of humour.  If the separation anxiety is particularly distressing or it lasts for a longer period than you expect don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Dr Elise Kearney runs a clinic at The Therapies Centre, The Fold, Bransford and can be contacted on elisekearney@btinternet.com 07713755224 or find out more about the service she offers at www.thefold.org.uk/natural-therapy-centre/consultant-child-family-psychology/

A mother of four and Chartered Consultant Child and Family Psychologist, Dr Kearney trained as a Clinical Psychologist in Glasgow.  She has over 15 years of experience working with children and families in the NHS and privately.  Dr Kearney offers 1:1 assessment and treatment sessions for a variety of difficulties including; difficulties stemming from family separation, bedtime or sleep problems, feeding difficulties or “fussy eating”, dealing with anger or “temper tantrums” and separation anxiety, difficulties around potty training, sibling rivalry or difficulties with sharing, starting nursery/school and transition to high school or College/University, anxiety, panic, phobias, low self-esteem, attachment difficulties, low mood and depression, behavioural problems, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), bereavement (this list is not exclusive).

Dr Elise Kearney consultant child family psychology profile tree field

Dr Elise Kearney – Consultant Child and Family Psychologist