Parenting Kids Through Separation Anxiety During Childhood and Adolescence
by Laurie Hollman, Ph.D.
The Early Years
During the first three years of life, kids are just beginning to understand that their parents have not vanished when they can no longer be seen. Some children take longer than others to understand this. Those who find this difficult often experience separation anxiety, feelings that their parents are absent and cannot be reached. They feel alone and sometimes abandoned. Parents can take several steps to ease the transitions:
- When you know you will be stepping out of the room, simply explain where you are going and when you’ll be back so kids begin to understand time passing doesn’t mean you have disappeared.
- Play games that practice appearing and disappearing like hide and seek. You will discover the children want to play this game endlessly as they are mastering separation anxiety.
- When it is bedtime, explain to the child that they will stay in their beds while you go into your room or living room. Make sure they know where you are and that they can call you to have you reappear. Develop regular routines such as reading to your child before sleep, so they know what to count on as occurring before you take your leave.
- If you are a working parent and your child is being taken to day care, make sure they are attached to one specific person at the day care center who is their ‘go to’ person when they feel anxious. Let them know that this person can call you as needed during the day to re-establish contact, until the separation anxiety wanes. A quick phone call can ease a troubled mind that you have not vanished when they hear your voice.
- Give kids transitional objects such as dolls, stuffed animals, favorite toys to keep by their side when they separate from you. These objects serve to replace your presence with persistent usage. It’s fine to even pack the item in a back pack so the child knows the object is nearby and reachable.
- Plan some after school activities so the youngsters get used to being dropped off and picked up at regular times.
- Plan play dates away from home again so youngsters get used to being cared for by other parents.
Children in elementary school, middle school, and even high school can experience separation anxiety when they are going through transitions such as a change in school, change in residence, separation and divorce of parents, changes in living conditions due to marital changes, developmental changes such as puberty, and any traumas or losses in their lives.
Older teens may experience separation anxiety when they anticipate going away to college even if they have had earlier separations from home which are shorter in duration such as summer athletic camps or enrichment camps. The prospect of living on one’s own with a stranger who is a roommate can cause undue anxiety.
Steps to Ease Transitions may include the following:
- Discuss any changes well ahead of time, so that the child is prepared for the change.
- Monitor your child’s clinginess or mood shifts as they are approaching changes.
- Older kids can articulate their anxieties, so listen attentively and make plans to ease transitions such as explaining parents’ whereabouts at all times.
- Newly working parents can show the children where their office is and help them understand how much time it takes to go from home to work and back.
- Colleges can be visited to acquaint your teens with new living environments.
- Videos of college campuses can be viewed to also acquaint your teens with potential living arrangements.
- Help your prospective college student facebook potential roommates and if they are close to home arrange a visit.
- Explain to your youngsters that transitions cause anxiety for many kids, so they can expect that they are not alone in their feelings and that time heals these shifts in adjustments to new environments and people. Let them know that they can’t expect to feel comfortable quickly, especially kids who have shown separation anxiety when they were younger. Then they are not scared when the anxiety persists for a few weeks.
These various suggestions ease separation anxiety appreciably. Parents can also use the term, separation anxiety, so kids understand what feelings they are experiencing. Putting anxiety in words helps kids cope because then they can discuss their distress with a vocabulary that makes sense to them. Always reassure your youngster that separation anxiety is normal for many kids and that in time as they get used to new environments and adults and kids, the tension wanes. This gives them hope for relaxing in several weeks. These discussions build the parent-child relationship which in itself eases separation anxiety.