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How to Help a Child With Separation Anxiety

How to Help a Child With Separation Anxiety

Be patient and use these strategies

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It is normal for children to experience a certain level of anxiety as they grow up. In fact,  separation anxiety is healthy and necessary for children between the ages of 18 months and 3 years old as they become more independent. However, symptoms of separation anxiety can also occur in older school-age children and teens.

Traumatic events can cause symptoms of separation anxiety, and the coronavirus pandemic is likely to cause a spike of separation problems in both parents and children. Self-quarantine, social distancing and remote learning have impacted how children view their world, which could potentially cause them stress, fear and more as they return to school or have to visit other environments outside their homes. 

If your child is feeling upset, having anxious thoughts or experiencing physical symptoms like stomach aches over leaving you or your home, here are tools and strategies for helping them cope in a healthy way.

Expect regression

Expect regression

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The coronavirus pandemic has been a stressful, traumatic event for many children, and so parents should expect some regression in certain behaviors and social skills that their children might have outgrown. According to the experts at Commonwealth Psychology Associates, parents should avoid shaming their children or suggesting they need to be a “big” boy or girl and instead respond with support and understanding.

Practice being apart

Practice being apart

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One of the silver linings for many families during coronavirus quarantine was increased quality time together at home. Conversely, one of the negative consequences is that children are now used to being around parents, guardians, siblings or other family members all the time. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, one way to help your child feel more comfortable being apart from you is simply to practice. Schedule playdates where you leave them at a friend’s or family member’s house or allow friends and family to come over and provide child care for you, even if it’s just for an hour at a time. You can then increase that time to an afternoon, a day or even a weekend apart to build their confidence.

Practice separations with games

Practice separations with games

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There are other ways to practice separation as well. For babies and toddlers, peek-a-boo helps them learn that even though you go away, you always come back. For older kids, games like hide and seek or a scavenger hunt around the house are both fun activities and good exercises for kids to practice not being able to see you and not being in the same room as you.

Plan departures around meals and naps

Plan departures around meals and naps

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Separation anxiety symptoms and protests like whining or tantrums are more likely when your child is hungry, tired or sick. Make sure your child has eaten a meal or snack and napped before you need to leave.

Have open conversations

Have open conversations

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If they’re old enough, talk to your child about how they're feeling before a departure. Have an open conversation about what in particular is worrying them. This will help you address specific concerns or fears with concrete reassurances or suggestions for how to cope with their feelings.

Maintain a healthy lifestyle

Maintain a healthy lifestyle

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Because bouts of separation anxiety can be worse when your child is hungry, tired or not feeling well, it’s important for parents to help their child maintain a healthy lifestyle overall. This includes healthy habits like eating regular meals, exercising and enforcing a bedtime. Having a stable routine at home also helps anxious children handle other uncertainties and change.

Establish a goodbye routine

Establish a goodbye routine

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When leaving your child, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests having a routine that you continue to follow despite any protests. A predictable goodbye routine establishes your departure as something normal, while sneaking off or trying to trick them erodes your child’s trust and confidence in you. You can try to make goodbyes something fun by establishing a short and sweet ritual like a special handshake or giving them a special toy.

Set a specific return time

Set a specific return time

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When leaving their kids, parents can help them cope with their fear and uncertainty by providing them with a specific time they will return, whether that’s simply after school, in a couple hours or by 3:00 p.m. on the dot. Following through on this promise will help build their trust and reduce their fears of being abandoned, according to Tufts Medical Center Community Care.

Be supportive but firm

Be supportive but firm

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According to a recent piece published in the journal Behavior Analysis in Practice, one of the most important things parents can do to help with separation anxiety is not give in to arguments or tantrums. You can be loving and sympathetic by acknowledging they’re upset, but you should not return to touch, pick up, or hug and kiss your child, delay your departure, hesitate or bargain with them to return sooner. These all reinforce unwanted behavior problems and anxiety responses.

Do not return

Do not return

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Once you have left, you should not come back to pick up, talk to or even check on your child until the time you said you would. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, this mistake will restart the separation process again and might even make it worse the second time around.

Introduce new people and situations slowly

Introduce new people and situations slowly

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If a child has only been home with their parents for a while, it’s natural for them to be anxious in new places or around new people. Try to introduce your child to new people or places slowly and for short periods of time. For example, you can visit daycare or the doctor’s office to say hello and walk around ahead of time so they get more familiar with these spaces and faces.

Be calm when you return

Be calm when you return

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Don’t be overly emotional or dramatic when you are reunited with your child. According to Tufts Medical Center Community Care, showering them with excessive hugs and kisses or crying will encourage them to overreact as well, not only when you return but also when you depart.

Reward good behavior

Reward good behavior

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Parents can reward their child for waiting patiently for their return with praise or even special privileges or treats. This could be getting to pick what’s for dinner that night or what you’ll play for family game night. It could also be a small goodie from your trip to the grocery store or a special souvenir from your business trip.

Spend quality time together

Spend quality time together

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If you and your child are spending significant time apart for the first time in a long time, one way to decrease their stress and help them feel safe, loved and accepted is to make sure that the time you do spend with them is meaningful. Good “quality time” activities to do together include reading, exercising and playing board games.

Ask others for support

Ask others for support

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If your child is experiencing symptoms of separation anxiety, it’s important to tell others who will come in contact with them such as your child’s healthcare provider, school, teachers or other caregivers. They can help you develop a treatment plan in advance or be prepared to provide extra reassurance and support in certain situations. They may also be able to direct you to community services, support groups and more.

Get creative

Get creative

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Parents can help their children redirect their emotions into positive outlets. Creative activities — such as playing, dancing and drawing — let children communicate and process their feelings, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Help them be proactive

Help them be proactive

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Parents can help their children manage the stress of COVID-19 and make them feel more in control during periods of change and adjustment by encouraging them to take action directly related to the pandemic. This could include volunteering in your community or coming up with projects to boost morale and make other kids more safe and comfortable at school.

Set an example

Set an example

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Parents are perhaps the strongest influence on a child, teaching them by example. Kids take their emotional cues from their parents, often picking up on their fears and anxieties. Even if you are also nervous about situations like sending your child back to school or them potentially having a meltdown when you drop them off, it’s important to remain calm and positive.

Limit media exposure

Limit media exposure

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According to the Centers for Disease Control, Media coverage can also end up feeding children’s anxieties around coronavirus and going back to school. It’s easy for children to misinterpret what they hear or be frightened by things they don’t understand. To counter this, limit your child’s exposure to news coverage, answer any questions they have and reassure them that they are safe.

Remind them of the positives

Remind them of the positives

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When children are anxious, they often dwell on their fears, possible “what ifs” and the negatives of a situation, but according to UNICEF, parents can help redirect their focus by reminding them of the positives. For example, children going back to school will be apart from their parents but they’ll be able to see their friends and teachers, learn new things and more.

Don’t scare them into following precautions

Don’t scare them into following precautions

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Many kids with separation anxiety related to the coronavirus pandemic are already feeling frightened. Conversely, anxious children may also get upset or frustrated with precautions like having to wear a mask or frequently washing their hands. However, according to UNICEF, parents should avoid trying to scare them into proper behavior. Reassure your child that they are safe and share facts about COVID-19 in a way that they can understand.

Consult with a professional

Consult with a professional

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While there are ways as a parent you can help your child, some symptoms or situations may warrant a visit with a mental health professional. According to the experts at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone, if your child’s symptoms significantly interfere with their daily routines, their symptoms are severe, such as panic attacks or recurring nightmares, or their symptoms persist for weeks with no improvement, don’t ignore these symptoms and talk with your healthcare provider. In the meantime, you can use these strategies for managing both you and your child’s coronavirus anxiety.

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