Updated: Jul 20
Separation anxiety is a normal part of childhood development and can start from the age of around 6 months. It is usual for young children to feel anxious at being left by a primary caregiver (usually mum or dad), especially in a new environment such as nursery or playgroup and they often settle quite quickly when they become more familiar with their new surroundings and the trusted adult who looks after them. They soon realise that mum or dad will be back to collect them later and they start to get into a routine.
However, if separation anxiety continues or begins to cause severe distress or physical symptoms, then it needs to be addressed. I only see children over the age of five years old and I would always recommend that you have spoken to the family doctor about your concerns just to rule out any underlying physical or psychological conditions.
It is not known why some children suffer with separation anxiety. Sometimes it is the result of a divorce or family breakup. It might have started with some kind of trauma, illness or death of a loved one (even a beloved pet). If that is the case, the underlying cause should be dealt with first and often the separation anxiety resolves itself. PTSD and grief can all be helped with hypnotherapy, so this is something I always look for before treating the presenting anxiety issue.
In most cases, however, there is no known cause. Some psychologists believe it is the result of an overly cautious or over-protective parent while others say it is caused by a lack of a secure attachment to the main caregiver, which means you can’t do right for doing wrong!
I honestly think that it depends on the personality of the child and that the parent often feels responsible even though it is nothing they have or have not done. Some children are naturally anxious and need help to overcome this and I find they are the ones who tend to suffer with separation anxiety and it is absolutely no reflection on your parenting skills. You are human and you are doing the best you can in sometimes very difficult circumstances. I often find it helpful to offer some relaxation and confidence-boosting sessions to parents, too, as dealing with an anxious child can be very stressful. Your stress and anxiety then feed the child’s worries and everyone ends up miserable and fraught. So, let’s break the cycle.
Possible Signs of Separation Anxiety
Extreme anxiety or misery at being left at school.
Panic if a parent is late to collect them.
Reluctance to attend clubs or sports activities without you.
Refusal to go to parties or have visits or sleepovers at a friends’ houses.
Following you from room to room and becoming distressed at the thought of you leaving.
Demanding that you stay with them at night until they fall asleep or trying every trick in the book to get you to stay or let them sleep in your bed.
Nightmares or extreme worries about being lost or separated from you.
Extreme worries and nightmares about being kidnapped.
Nightmares about being hurt or killed in an accident or fire or that you will be hurt or killed in some way.
Extreme anxiety at being left at home without you, even with a trusted babysitter.
Physical Symptoms of Separation Anxiety
Hypnotherapy is great for helping a child deal with separation anxiety and building their confidence and self-esteem. However, there are also things that you can do to lessen the severity of the problem and manage separation anxiety. This list is something I give to all parents as a guide to give you some support when dealing with this difficult issue.
Tips for Parents and Carers
Remember there is a difference between being sensitive to your child’s needs and giving in to every little demand. It’s not easy, but you need to find the balance between being supportive and caring and being at their beck and call so that they are not completely dependent on you, especially as they get older.
When you drop a child at school, club, party or friend’s house, tell them exactly when you will be there to collect them and if possible, be there earlier than arranged. If you are held up for any reason make sure you get in touch and leave a message letting them know why you will be late and how long you will be.
Explain your worries to your child’s teacher and make sure they are there to greet your child and can immediately involve them in an activity.
Make life as boring and regular as possible in your daily routine so there are no last-minute surprises or stressful, rushed mornings. Get up at a certain time, conduct your morning routine in a certain way every day and keep it all as calm as possible. This will start the day in a calm and controlled way, helping you and your child to feel more relaxed and secure.
Try not to be too early for school as waiting around can cause the nerves and anxiety to build up. On the other hand, make sure you are not late so that you can have a calm and relaxed goodbye and a good start to the school day.
Keep your goodbyes short and sweet but please make sure you don’t sneak off as this will upset a child and they will start to lose trust in you, making the anxiety worse.
Over breakfast, talk to your child about what you have planned for the day so they can imagine you busy at work or at home during the day while they are at school. Make plans for the end of the day so they can look forward to seeing you later.
Give your child a small picture of you to carry with them so they can look at it during the day. Perhaps arrange a time, such as playtime or lunchtime when you both agree to send love to each other so they know you are thinking of them.
Tell your child regularly that you love them and let them know this love is with them all the time, wherever they are and whether you are together or apart.
If they are really struggling to settle at school, ask the teacher if it would be possible to arrange a phone call with your child at some point during the day when they can speak to you for a few minutes.
Put a little encouraging note in their bookbag or lunchbox for them to find later to let them know they are loved and that you are proud of them.
If your child is reluctant to attend an activity such as a club or party, try not to let them back out of it as they will just end up more isolated and it will take longer to overcome the anxiety. Instead, offer to stay with them and maybe leave them for half an hour or an hour towards the end. When you leave, say goodbye and tell them exactly when you will be back. If it is a regular club or event, you can lengthen the amount of time you leave them alone each time.
Talk about the outing beforehand without making it into a big deal. Don’t mention it so far in advance that they have time to start worrying about it and building up anxiety but don’t leave it until the last minute.
If your child is adamant that they really don’t want to do something without you, try giving them choices. You may have to experiment with this and see what works. You could try suggesting that another trusted adult stays with them and you will be there to drop them off and pick them up. If they still refuse, you could give them the choice of something very boring that you know they won’t enjoy, such as food shopping or waiting in the car for another sibling to finish their activity. Don’t make it sound like a punishment, just a matter-of-fact choice.
“So, would you like Nanny to come with you to gymnastics and she can stay with you? I have things to do and then I will come back and pick you up later. Or, you can come and drop Charlie off at cubs with me and we’ll wait in the car until he is ready to come home? Which would you rather do?”
Accept whichever choice they make and if they come with you, remember it isn’t a punishment. However, try not to reward the choice with treats or extra attention. Perhaps take some work to do in the car or make a few phone calls to show that you have your own things to be getting on with and are not just there to amuse your child. You know them best, so you know how to bore them! Go along with this for as long as it takes and praise them when they eventually make the decision to go to the planned activity.
If you do have to go out and leave your child with a childminder or babysitter, make sure it is someone they know and they feel safe and happy with. Let them know when you are going, where you are going and what time you will be back. Let them know what you want them to do while you are gone, perhaps leaving a fun activity for them. However hard they make it, don’t respond to emotional blackmail as it really won’t help to solve the problem long-term.
If you have a child suffering with any type of anxiety, please contact me for a chat about how I might be able to help. I am a qualified primary school teacher and clinical hypnotherapist and I specialise in helping children from the age of 6-years-old to manage and overcome many different issues including anxiety, nightmares, bed wetting, habits, pain, illness and lots more. I use a combination of child-friendly hypnosis, stories and activities to help change unhelpful ideas and beliefs they might have about the world and themselves. I also teach them techniques they can use to help them cope and become more independent when facing things they may have previously found difficult or stressful so that they can enjoy their childhood and become the confident and happy kid we all want them to be.