10 Strategies for Handling Separation Anxiety
1. You can minimize the child’s separation anxiety by maintaining a consistent routine in which the child’s anticipates the separation and the reconnection.
2. Always tell your child before separating in order to minimize the child’s fear that you may separate at any time. This way the child can rely on you being there until the anticipated separation.
3. Attempt to minimize separations.
4. Maintain consistent caregivers in order to allow the child to build an attachment to those who care for the child.
5. Ensure the caregiver knows the needs and preferences of the child. For example, you can share with the caregiver a song that you and the child like to sing together so the caregiver can do this with the child.
6. Provide the child with tangible objects that remind them of you so they can hold it when they miss you. It often helps to leave the child a photo of both of you.
7. Emphasize that you will always return to be with the child. Reassure the child before each separation.
8. Tell the child what you will do together when you reunite in order to give the child something to look forward to as well as a reminder that you will return shortly.
9. Once you reunite, tell the child how happy you are to see them again. Discuss the separation and how you returned.
10. Expect the child to show symptoms of anxiety through many forms such as a short temper and waking up through the night. Reassure the child that you are there for them.
In order for a child to be diagnosed clinically with separation anxiety they must meet three of the eight following symptoms:
(1) recurrent and excessive distress upon separation, or anticipation of separation, from home or major attachment figures; (2) persistent and excessive worry about losing, or about possible harm coming to, major attachment figures; (3) persistent and excessive worry that some event – such as getting lost or being kidnapped – will lead to being separated from a major attachment figure; (4) persistent reluctance or refusal to go to school or other places due to a fear of separation; (5) persistent and excessive fearfulness or reluctance to be alone, or without major attachment figures at home or in other settings; (6) persistent reluctance or refusal to go to sleep without a major attachment figure present, or to sleep away from home; (7) recurrent nightmares about being separated from major attachment figures; and (8) repeated complaints of physical symptoms (e.g., headaches, nausea) when separation from major attachment figures occurs or is anticipated. (Mychailyszyn, 2012)
Although it is age-appropriate for a toddler to have some distress when separating from a primary caregiver, separation anxiety “involves age-inappropriate, excessive, disabling anxiety about being away from home or from those individuals to whom the child is attached” (Scarpa, 2012). Professionals discuss how “separation anxiety is typical in toddlerhood, and so this disorder may be difficult to distinguish from anxiety that is developmentally normal,” it can usually only be distinguished by intensity of anxiety and length of time the anxiety lasts (Scarpa, 2012).
Lieberman, Alicia F. (1995). The Emotional Life of the Toddler. Free Press, Simon & Schuster, New York, New York.
Mychailyszyn, M.P., & Treadwell, K. (2012). Separation anxiety. Encyclopedia of Human Behavior, 396-402.
Scarpa, A., & Wilson, L. (2012) Childhood mental disorders. Encyclopedia of Human Behavior,467-475.
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