Most of us feel best when our families are together. But as our children grow, we tend to spend more time apart for a variety of reasons. Some children adjust easily to this change. Others have more difficulty. It’s understandable to miss the people we love. But what if your child is so focused on missing you that he or she misses out on other things, too?
Strategies can help. But first, let’s consider what worry is like for your child.
|Thoughts||When most of us worry, we do the, “What ifs?” With worries about separation, the “what ifs” tend to fall into two categories:
While these events are possible, they aren’t very probable. But they can seem very real when we worry.
|Bodily Sensations||Worried children may feel a flood of bodily sensations, like tummy aches or headaches. They might feel dizzy or flushed, their hearts might race, and their breathing might be rapid. These sensations are the body’s alarm system going off, and that alarm system can feel very uncomfortable.|
|Feelings||When we worry, we feel afraid. But we can feel other things, too, like anger, sadness, embarrassment, or frustration.|
|Behaviors||For many of us our first instinct is to stay away from what scares us. With separation worries, children try to avoid going places without a parent or caregiver. Sometimes, avoidance can even mean sticking close to home (e.g., in the same room or bed as a parent). If separation is looming, children may protest, cry, or cling to parents. Children may also look for repeated reassurance that everything will be okay, but that reassurance often doesn’t stop the worrying.|
Worry can be distressing for children—and for adults, too! Here are some strategies to help everyone feel better.
Teach your child that the uncomfortable feeling he or she is experiencing is called anxiety. Use basic terms for young children, like feeling worried or nervous. Explain that feeling worried is the body’s alarm system going off. We need our alarm system to help keep us safe, but sometimes it goes off when it doesn’t need to, and when we aren’t in any real danger. Let your child know everyone worries sometimes, and there are things that can help when worry happens.
Practice with separation gives children opportunities to see that everything will be okay (assuming they are being left somewhere safe) and helps build confidence that they can cope.
- Practice separation when your child is at his or her best (i.e., not hungry, tired, or sick).
- Start with shorter separations before moving on to more challenging situations.
- Use a consistent separation routine so your child knows exactly what to expect.
- If you can, try to meet a babysitter or visit a new setting ahead of time so your child knows what to expect. If that isn’t possible, stay a few minutes while your child looks around and settles in.
- Reminders of home, like a blanket or stuffed animal, may help soothe separations. As your child gets older, something smaller that fits in a pocket may be more appropriate.
- When it’s time to go, don’t sneak away! This tactic can contribute to your child staying close so you don’t disappear suddenly.
- Offer a quick, caring, matter of fact good-bye. Tell your child when you will be back and do your best to stick to the plan. Then give your child a hug and kiss and (here comes the hard part)…exit.
- Even if your child is upset, stay calm so your child can see that you believe nothing harmful is going to happen.
- Being overly protective or providing repeated reassurance may give your child the impression that there is something to be feared. Be as matter of fact as you can and convey confidence in your child’s ability to cope.
- Tears are common when separating, so be prepared. They generally stop once parents/caregivers are out of site, so the sooner that happens, the easier it may be for your child.
- Avoid prolonging your goodbye or returning to see if everything is okay. Both can increase your child’s distress. If you are concerned, arrange a call in 20 minutes to speak with the adult in charge. Speaking with your child may cause further upset, so it’s not necessary for your child to know about the call.
- Distraction can be a powerful tool. If the person caring for your child suggests an engaging activity as soon as you say goodbye, your child’s attention may shift from separating to having fun.
Certain situations can trigger separation fears. For example, fears sometimes pop up around transitions, like starting kindergarten or moving to a new neighborhood. They can also happen during stressful events, like the birth of a sibling or a divorce. Symptoms can reappear, or seem more intense, after disruptions to regular routines—after a weekend, holiday, or illness that kept your child home from school. Try your best to get your child back into a routine as quickly as possible.
While many children have difficulty with separations, some parents do, too! How do you feel about leaving your child? Do you crumble at the first sign of tears and cancel your plans? Have you rearranged your family’s routine around your child’s preferences not to separate? Some reluctance to leave your child may also be playing a role in your child’s fears. Talk to a trusted friend or professional if you have concerns about your own or your child’s worries about being apart. And be kind to yourself! While separating is an important part of growing up, it can be tough at any age.
Related Books from Magination Press
What to Do When You Don’t Want to Be Apart: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Separation Anxiety
Hot air balloon pilots have wonderful adventures, where they get to see things they have never seen before and learn all about the world outside.
Flying a hot air balloon sounds like a lot of fun to some kids. But for other kids, the idea of flying off on their own, away from their parents or homes, doesn’t sound like fun at all. If you feel scared when you do something alone or away from your parents, this book is for you!
What to Do When You Don’t Want to Be Apart guides children and their parents through the emotions underlying separation anxiety using strategies and techniques based on cognitive-behavioral principles. This interactive self-help book is the complete resource for educating, motivating, and empowering children to overcome separation anxiety — so they can become the confident pilots of their very own hot air balloons!
This book is part of the Magination Press What-to-Do Guides for Kids® series. (picture book, ages 6-10)
Blossom Plays Possum: Because She’s Shy
Ask me my name?
Want me to play?
Call on me in class?
I say nothing and hope no one will see me. I call that playing possum. It’s my way of being shy.
Blossom wants to speak up in class, and she wants to spend time with friends at lunch and at recess. But whenever she tries, she freezes up and plays possum instead! Can Blossom get past her shyness and have fun?
Includes a Note to Parents and Other Caregivers by Julia Martin Burch, PhD, with more information on the cognitive-behavioral strategies Blossom uses to cope with shyness and ways to encourage your own shy child. (picture book, ages 4-8)
When Fuzzy Was Afraid of Losing His Mother
While Fuzzy the Little Sheep is out playing with his friends, he falls and skins his knee. He searches for his mother, can’t find her, and feels scared and alone. Fuzzy soon finds his mom, but then he is afraid to let her out of his sight. Fuzzy’s mother has several ideas to help him cope with being away from her, which he practices, and eventually he is able to play comfortably with his friends and not be near her. (picture book, ages 3-7)