In early childhood it is completely normal for a child to react to parental separation with tears, clinginess and even tantrums, all of which are normal developmental responses. However intervention may be necessary when it is prolonged and still apparent in older children (5yrs+) and if it frequently affects them day to day and their enjoyment of life, and yours too as parents.
With understanding and tailored coping strategies separation anxiety can be minimised significantly. It is important to note that the emphasis is on reducing and tolerating the anxiety rather than total elimination. It is key to teach children that we all experience anxiety and it is a perfectly normal response to a stressful/fearful circumstance.
Issues arise when the symptoms of anxiety outweigh the situation.
With reference to all anxiety disorders, not just separation, there is a cycle which accompanies each situation. It begins with the thoughts of an individual, which then controls their feelings which then affects their behaviour. This cycle continues with each stage causing and leading to the next.
To elaborate on what a child may be processing through each stage here are some examples:
What if something happens to mum/dad while they’re away?
What if they forget to pick me up?
What if they’re late and I get into trouble?
What if I get lost?
What if I am ill and mum/dad can’t come to help me?
Accelerating breathing (panic attack)
Refusing to attend school/club etc
Avoidance of any new situation
Will not be left alone
Continuous checking parent is near
So, as parents what can we do to help?
Firstly, communication is key.
At a time when you are not under pressure, talk to your child about their feelings. Be fully engaged with their worries and completely respectful of their feelings. As adults, what we may dismiss as trivial may be of great significance to a child.
Engaging in mature conversation should give the child's confidence a great boost and help them to understand that Mum and Dad identify their worries and fears.
It is important not to provide too much verbal input at this stage, just simply listen….
Let them know you hear them and that you understand. Try to let the child lead the conversation as much as possible, with you just prompting with subtle remarks or questions when necessary.
Go on to ask them what they think may make them feel better or help them to cope when they are upset. As parents, we want to provide our children with the answers and guidance, but in this case if the child can come up with suggestions for themselves they have more chance of proving successful. Once they have discussed their ideas with you, you could then suggest some additional ideas or make adaptations of their suggestions.
Here are some coping strategies that should prove helpful:
Be sure to fully explain what you're doing and the process involved and why it is going to help. Use positive suggestive language when doing so. Describe how they can use the anchor at any time when they are feeling sensitive to their surrounding, or feel their anxiety is peaking.
Sit or lie comfortably and close your eyes.
Make no effort to control your breathe; simply breath naturally.
Focus your attention on the breath and how your body moves with each inhalation and exhalation. Notice the movement of your body as you breathe. Observe your chest, shoulders, rib cage, and stomach. Simply focus your attention on your breath without controlling its pace or intensity. If your mind wanders, return your focus back to your breath.
Maintain this meditation practice for two to three minutes to start, and then try it for longer periods.
The language you use should be adapted so it is relevant to the age of the child. It is important to express how this meditation practise will establish a sense of peace and calm that they can access whenever they feel they need to. They have the ability to do it in one setting (at home) so it can be transferred to any other (school/away from parent).
One of the most important tools to help a child with separation anxiety is for the parents to be calm and relaxed themselves. So it is vital to give yourself some TLC. The more calm and at ease you are this will have a huge positive impact on the children around you. It enables you to deal with things with a focused level head and makes cognitive processing easier. Make time each and every day without fail to commit to yourself and your wellbeing. Attach no guilt to this time as it is doing you the world of good and it is also doing the people around you good too. We all feed off of each others emotions so this TLC will benefit everyone.
It is with much affection that I write this article and hope it can help others.
Samantha Friend D. HYP
Clinical Practitioner for Kent Therapy