How to solve your child’s Separation Anxiety

Separation Anxiety reflects a child’s fear or distress at the idea of being separated from their parents or caregivers.  

If you have or know a child who struggles with Separation Anxiety, you’ve probably witnessed their fear that something awful will happen to their parents when they are apart. This heightened distress is often expressed with tears, clinginess, pleading, refusing to get dressed for school, or refusing to go to school.

Many children with Separation Anxiety also complain of an upset stomach, headache, or feeling sick. These symptoms most often occur at the point of preschool or school drop-off, but they also occur when parents leave home for extended periods, or when your child attends play dates, activities, camps, or sleepovers.

Strategies to solve Separation Anxiety

1. Streamline your morning routine

Think about what specific moments of the morning drop-off create the most stress and brainstorm ways to refine them. Sometimes this takes a bit of trial-and-error but it’s worth mixing it up! For example, do you need to pack the bag the night before, or wake up a little earlier to avoid rushing? Once a good routine is established, keep it as consistent and predictable as possible. This will help increase your child’s sense of security even before the time comes to separate. Visual checklists of morning tasks can be helpful to remind your child to keep on track.

2. Talk to your child and their teacher/s

Teachers have a wealth of experience in dealing with sensitive children. It is quite likely that staff at the school have assisted other families with similar issues and may have a process to help with handovers. If you feel that there is something about school that is worrying your child, ask your son or daughter to explain what they are specifically concerned about. It may be that they are finding tasks in the classroom particularly difficult or feeling hassled by other children. Make an appointment with your child’s teacher and members of the school’s Learning Support or Welfare team so that you can set aside time to collaborate on strategies that will work.  

Strategies to support your child with Separation Anxiety

3. Take a transition object

A transition object is an item from home that brings your child a sense of comfort and security. This may be a toy, a photo, or a memento that provides some comfort and feelings of connection as you separate from your child. Ensure teachers are aware of the purpose of this special object so they can arrange for your child to have it with them.

4.  Outsource drop-off

One of the simplest, and sometimes most effective, strategies is simply to switch places with someone else during drop-off. If you are feeling anxious ahead of drop-off, your child may be picking up on that, particularly if you are the parent they spend the most time with. In many cases, there can be a substantial improvement in a anxious behaviours when another parent, relative, or close friend takes your child to preschool or school. Children sense our distress and if another adult portrays a calmer and more confident demeanour, this will help your anxious child to feel more relaxed.

5. Be supportive, yet firm
For the majority of children, anxious behaviours end soon after the child leaves you. It is important that you remain calm to demonstrate to the child that you are confident that they will be safe and supported at school. You might say, “I can see it’s hard to say goodbye, but you have to go to school”.

How to help your child overcome Separation Anxiety

When to really worry

According to recent research, about 6.9% of Australian children aged 4 to 11 experience anxiety, and up to 20% of adolescents aged 11 to 17 have experienced high levels of psychological distress.¹

As anxiety is the second most prevalent mental health issue affecting our children today, it is important to take your child’s separation anxiety seriously, especially if your child is aged six or over.

All children and adolescents feel some anxiety. It is a normal part of growing up.

It is developmentally normal for young children (five years old and younger) to demonstrate fear and anxiety about various situations, including the dark and strangers.

But by the age of 6 common and ‘acceptable’ childhood fears should decrease.

By the time they start school, most kids have usually overcome separation worries, and so if your child is aged over 6 and is still struggling, acting quickly to support him/her is important.

Separation Anxiety Disorder

Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD) is a type of mental health problem and can progress into other fears and phobias if left untreated.

The symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder are more severe than the occasional bout of nerves and so it’s important to get professional advice if you think your child might be affected by it.

A child with Separation Anxiety Disorder worries a lot about being apart from their family members or other people they feel close to.

They have a fear of being lost from their family or of something terrible occurring to a family member if he or she is not with that person.

The first signs of Separation Anxiety Disorder might appear when your child is very young and if anxiety runs in the family, you may be quick to recognise it.

For many children though, Separation Anxiety Disorder only becomes noticeable when they are aged 6 and over and are unable to do the things that their school peers can do. Their problem-solving skills are less developed, and their resilience is lower than other kids they know.

A child must have symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder for at least 4 weeks for the problem to be formally diagnosed by a doctor or mental health professional.

Resources and Suggested Reading

  • Your child’s teacher, school counselor or GP may be able to assist with strategies for home and school.
  • Books such as “The Invisible String” by Patrice Karst are also a great option to help children to normalise their worries and fears. This lovely picture book describes an ‘invisible string’ that connects us to our loved ones, no matter where they may be. A related activity could be to tie a string around your child’s wrist and yours (you could even get creative and decorate it), as a reminder of the invisible string connecting you throughout the day.
Cool Kids Anxiety Groups in Sydney

Small group Anxiety programs

The COOL KIDS and CHILL’D anxiety programs developed at Macquarie University’s Centre for Emotional Health Clinic are another way to help your child overcome Separation Anxiety.

These family-friendly small group programs teach children and teens practical ways to overcome anxiety and build resilience. Resources for parents are included to ensure that kids get all the help they need to become braver and more relaxed.

Cool Kids and Chill’d Anxiety groups at Kids First

Kids First’s fully accredited psychology team offers COOL KIDS for children in Years 3 to 6 and CHILL’D for teens in Years 7 and 8.

Our face-to-face small group programs take place after school on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and at 12.30pm on Saturdays. Call us on (02) 9938 5419 to chat about how we can support your child

Cool Kids Anxiety Program

References:

¹ Lawrence D, Johnson S, Hafekost J, Boterhoven De Haan K, Sawyer M, Ainley J et al. 2015.  The mental health of children and adolescents. Report on the second Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing. Canberra: Department of Health. Viewed 23 August 2022

Based on “Separation Anxiety at Pre-School Drop-off” by Madeline Sibbing (2022). The Australian Association of Psychologists.

McLeod, S. A. (2017, February 05). Attachment theory. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/attachment.html

Stanford Medicine Children’s Health (2022) Separation Anxiety in Children. www.stanfordchildrens.org/en/topic/default?id=separation-anxiety-disorder-90-P02582

We’re here to support you and your child - no matter what.

Chat to us today

School Ready: get the guide for school readiness you've been looking for

X