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Dealing with a Child with Early Separation Anxiety Issues

Help for parents of kids with extreme separation anxiety issues. What to do when your child refuses to go to school or leave the house

A mother writes: We're having all kinds of trouble with our five-year-old daughter. She won't leave my side and continues to obsess over my leaving the house or her having to go to school. I feel trapped by her separation anxiety. Help!

Separation is one of the most pivotal, and potentially problematic, developmental steps in early childhood. While some young children proudly ascend the steps of growth, others become terrified by the prospect. Worries about starting school, troubles sleeping in their own bed, and startle responses when a parent leaves the room, are common to the separation-challenged child. Parents often feel captive by the child's shadowing anxiety, held hostage by demands to announce whereabouts, accommodate to rituals, and relinquish adult needs.

Ways to Deal with Extreme Separation Anxiety or Separation Anxiety Disorder

If this stressful mixture of choking attachment and emotional meltdown rings a familiar bell in your home, consider the following coaching tips:

Consider precipitants but recognize that none may be present. Acute triggering events are not necessary in the case of separation anxiety. Some children are "wired" for disproportionate reactions to life stage events due to the brooding apprehension and unrealistic mental associations linked to separation events. They speak and think extreme thoughts, such as "I'll never get to sleep...No one will talk to me...My teacher will hate me... I'll cry so much that I'll stop breathing." Even though these statements combine fear and drama, parents should take them seriously and not attempt to humor the child. Children will become even more unhinged if parents display a lack of understanding of how upset they feel.

Comfort them with words that reassure their worries and give them an expectation of relief. Parents must first help children feel safe and anchored before beginning to verbally address the challenge of separation: "I know how hard it is for you to be without me. I don't want you to feel that way. I want you to feel safe but I know that your worries about being alone get in the way. I want to help you get those worries out of the way so you can feel safe even when spending time by yourself." Wait for the child to be ready to discuss this path so that they don't feel pushed. Once they express interest, reinforce their courage to overcome their worries and live more freely.

Help children understand the problem and give them talking tools to promote self-calming.

The strong currents of anxiety and fear can be likened to a "worried mind that takes control from the calm mind that usually makes life feel safe." Explain how even though being alone in the home feels unsafe, it is just the worried mind tricking them into feeling and thinking that way. Explain how one way to shrink the worried mind is to practice calm thinking, such as "I'm safe playing in my home, even if I'm alone." Offer other short calming statements that target the cumbersome rituals the child has developed to quell their anxiety, such as leaving lights on, closing certain doors, prescribed room location of the parent at bedtime, etc.

Show them how to visualize the steps to reach relief. One way to help them see the light at the end of the tunnel is to draw a staircase on a page, each step representing incrementally "bigger" advancements toward their goal of freedom from worries. Under each step write down brief phrases describing each step towards independence, such as the smaller step of "spent two minutes playing in the bedroom by myself," or the larger step of "fell asleep without Mom in the room." Have them color in each step as they go. Place in the page in a conspicuous place so they track their progress and feel motivated to take further independent steps.

See Also:

Separation Anxiety in Children: How to Help Your Child

APA Reference
Richfield, S. (2019, August 7). Dealing with a Child with Early Separation Anxiety Issues, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, September 16 from https://www.healthyplace.com/parenting/the-parent-coach/dealing-with-a-child-with-early-separation-anxiety-issues

Last Updated: August 7, 2019

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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