helping a child with separation anxiety

These counter-intuitive strategies help stop your child’s separation anxiety in a kind and supportive way

Most parents think the time to deal with separation issues is at the dreaded drop-off. But you can use calmer times to work on separation.

Feeling sad when we say goodbye to those we love is natural. We should have an emotional response because we love and care so much. But we don’t want children so overwhelmed when they leave us that it stops them from fully engaging in their lives, or prevents them from taking delight in new opportunities and experiences. 

What I love about working with children around separation anxiety, is that it can be done at times which are convenient to us, when we have some spare emotional reserves, rather than JUST at the dreaded drop off in front of onlookers.

I hope this post will give you some ideas about how to shift your child’s anxieties around separation. 

How I found kind supportive ways to help my children with separation anxiety.

Both my own children struggled with drop-offs, at nursery, starting school, being left at playdates, birthday parties or with babysitters. It made for frustrating and stressful transitions and at times stopping us from making plans, and stopped them joining in activities I was sure they would otherwise enjoy. 

We did all the usual preparations. We did the settling in sessions, we tried playing together in the space but there were still occasions where the nursery worker had to hold him crying as I left

I think many of us are taught to have a brusque approach, to ignore the “silliness” and be detached. We’re supposed to be comforted that our child stops crying as soon as we leave. As if our children are manipulating us by crying, deliberately pulling our heartstrings in some perverse game. 

That judgment grows when a child is so scared that they fight for themselves and get physical and aggressive. 

I believed my son was “fine” once he was in class and thought “that’s just how things go” but I noticed he showed his separation anxiety at other times. 

Bedtime became a big struggle. I didn’t know then that bedtime struggles are often separation anxiety problems. I just knew I was exhausted and the conventional methods weren’t really working. 

My younger son was similar. He got used to going into nursery, and enjoyed his time there, but sometimes he still struggled to say goodbye to me in the morning. 

We hadn’t rid ourselves of the anxiety, we’d just learnt to live with it. 

By the time he was due to start school I had discovered the Hand in Hand Parenting tools and learnt more about how children’s emotions work.

I knew that I didn’t want him to just get by, I wanted him to thrive

image of free guide How Emotions Work and linkimage of free guide How Emotions Work and linkHow to read your child's deepest emotionsYou can download this guide, How Children’s Emotions Work at no cost if you want to know more about this.

The Long Goodbye

One of the Hand in Hand approaches to separation issues is called The Long Goodbye. In essence, this approach looks completely different to the usual quick hug, kiss goodbye and leave your child crying with a careworker. Instead, it’s about stretching out the goodbye to give the child time, space, and safety to work on the sorrow and fear around saying goodbye to the ones they love. 

I began this process by bringing the subject to my Listening Partnership. Although I knew that separation anxiety is natural, I spoke of my regret that I didn’t have these tools earlier. I had done things, some in good faith, which probably exacerbated both my sons fears. I lamented that I might have caused more harm than good, and I was heartbroken that I might have caused pain for my children. 

I cried with Listening Partners who knew I was good, that I had done the best I could with the knowledge and support that I had. After a while I could hold that truth myself, somewhat forgiving myself and found I could be lighter around the subject. I talked about what goodbyes had been like for me, saying goodbye to my parents, and friends.

I took time to cry some more as I sat with that discomfort.

I also talked about the judgments I felt from other parents and teachers. What would they think of me? That my children didn’t just glide into class, quietly and obediently. What would it be like to be watched allowing my child to cry and listen to their upset? 

And I talked about my ugly frustrations. Why did MY child have to be anxious? Make such a fuss? And my fears. Would they always be anxious? Stop them from living their lives? 

Then, I began working with my son.

As a new student, parents could accompany their children to the classroom, and he’d grown used to me being there as he hung his coat and found his place on the carpet? Now he was older, that was expected to change.

I told him a week before school started, “After the holidays, you’ll need to walk in on your own”. 

And then I listened. This is part one of The Long Goodbye

He was loud, angry and full of emotion. I gently said it again, “Uh-ha, yes, you’ll need to go in by yourself after the holidays,” and I listened some more. 

He charged at me then, and I made sure I didn’t get hurt. I provided resistance to his pushing on me, I let him feel his strength and I met it with love and understanding. He needed to fight, to struggle. 

This was his emotional process working. 

When I felt myself shift into a place that did not feel calm, or on his side, I gently broke off the process a little. We got a snack and played in the park. 

I planned to use that week to work on his separation fears. I wanted to give him time and opportunity to show me what came up for him when I proposed this next step of leaving me. Every time I mentioned him going in by himself I listened with warmth and connection. 

Laughter is a super connector, making us feel attached, welcomed and loved. It is so good at healing hurts that sometimes laughter on its own is enough to help a child separate happily. Where the hurts run deeper, the laughter can build the safety and shift enough feelings so that a child is able to cry about the separation and heal through crying. 

So, we also did lots of Playlistening games and upped our Special Time to help balance the harder work of Staylistening. 

I suspected that there was still work to be done on that first day of school, and so I planned for lots of time to listen. I got up early so I could be ready before the children. I gave myself time to mention walking in alone as the children were getting into their uniforms, listening to what bubbled up. We left to walk to school earlier than usual so that as we walked I could stop, get close and listen when he started to object and cry.

In the playground I spoke to his teacher, and explained that my son would come in on his own that morning, but that I would wait with him until he was ready and so he might be late. I’m sure the teacher had no idea what I was talking about, nor why I was doing it, but my lightness and confidence was enough for her to accept it without question. 

And my son really cried, but he didn’t struggle anymore. 

He told me he would miss me, and I assured him I would miss him too. 

When he stopped crying I played a favourite Playlistening game of his called “One more kiss” and followed his giggling, until he said “OK Mummy, but this is the last kiss and then I HAVE to go.” 

And he went. 

He wasn’t even late, but if he had been, that would have been ok. And it would have been ok if I had needed to take him in after a while. I would have told him what a great job he had done, and that tomorrow we would try again, keeping light, positive, and encouraging.

Since then I've worked with a number of families where the separation anxiety was more extreme. Sometimes separation anxiety ran through the whole family, and parents struggled, older siblings struggled and younger siblings followed suit. 

Sometimes there’s an obvious link to a dramatic separation. If you had a difficult birth, or you or your baby needed medical intervention, and your baby spent time in incubators, you might notice this. Sometimes even if you or your partner were physically present your child, as a baby, may not have felt that presence, especially if you faced loss, grief, family stress, or depression. 

Sometimes there is no obvious link.

What we do know is that there was once a time where the emotional emergency caused the fear to stick, and a newer separation, like attending daycare or school, triggers the same overwhelming sense or fear or desperation.

When I work with children facing separation anxiety, I focus on connection and providing grounding, space and listening. I really want the child to show me how hard it feels. 

It can look like crying, shouting, rage, struggling, or fighting. 

I stay as close as I can without overwhelming the child, offering warm eye contact and assuring them they are safe, and that mummy or daddy are coming back. 

Listening to a young child is a dance, and it doesn’t always feel comfortable, but that's as it should be. We need to be questioning ourselves as we do it. I ask myself if I am staying warm, patient and understanding. 

You know that good shifts are taking place after an emotional outburst when you can see your child can:

  • Make warm eye contact
  • Laugh and giggle
  • Engage with the world and people around them, 
  • Affectionate and light 
  • Cooperate more easily. 

One child I worked with had a strong bond with me, but had so much to work on that they spent weeks crying and tantruming as they said goodbye to their parent. 

Still, we watched him thrive as he overcame the separation and moved through those fear feelings. His vocabulary exploded and he was delighted and engaged with the world. 

My favourite 5 tips to wash separation anxiety away

Listening time for you. This is the perfect time to work on your own history with goodbyes. Here are some things to think about:

  • Ask your family and learn how you reacted as a child saying goodbye.
  • Think about what you remember about being dropped at childcare or at school yourself. What do you remember about your parents responses to it? 
  • What comes up for you when you are dropping off your child, or even contemplating leaving your child with someone else? 

Have someone be with you while you think, talk, cry, or laugh, someone that won’t judge you, offer advice or criticism but just hold that you and your child are doing your best, and that you’ll figure it out. 

Get laughter going through your child’s day: The great thing about working about separation anxiety (or sleep separation anxiety) is that some of the work can be done at other times of the day. 

Plan for a rough goodbye: Plan to arrive early and lavish your attention and connection on your child. Allow time to listen to how much they don’t want you to leave. Try not to hope or wish that today will be better, because your child may pick up on this expectation which only adds more tension to the situation. If you are finding it hard to listen, do go back to your listening partner.

Plan for a rough hello: Children pick up much that is non-verbal. They learn that it is not ok to show their anxiety and may grit their teeth instead. The tension may finally be released when you are reunited. It helps to think up some connective Playlistening games at hand to ease that transition.

Look for results AFTER upsets: With all the emotions that are being worked through, it is helpful to remember that the a child's intensity during upset does not lessen. Instead, look for how your child is after they have worked on a hard bit of emotion. Are they more cooperative later on that day? Are they more quick to laugh or seem lighter as they engage with their world? Do they offer more affection the next day? If you do see these things, you can be sure your warm listening and connection is helping. Their world feels lighter to them.

So, what happened in our family?

Last weekend I dropped my son off at a new sports club. He didn’t know if he would recognise anyone there. 

He didn’t know the coach, yet, he was excited and relaxed.

In a few months, he’ll spend a whole week away on a school residential trip. He’s so excited he wants to pack his bags already.

When I think back to those days he clung to me crying, when I had to prise him off and leave him crying, I see. He’s come a long way.

And so have I.

4 games to help your child with separation anxiety

 

Love tug

Invite an over-the-top tug of war game over your child with loved ones. For instance, you may spot your child climbing on to their grandma’s knee and proclaim “NO! you can’t go with grandma, I need a cuddle from you” and gently tug on the child as grandma replies, “NO! I need X, you can’t have them, they’re MINE!” Watch the giggles flow as your child gets waves of reassurance about how much they are loved. This still works with my 10-year-old and is actually a favourite game for me when my husband and children play this with me at the centre. A lovely three-way hug at is a joyous ending when we play this game.

One more kiss

This game is great to play at bedtime, drop-off time, or even moving from one room to another. Play up your need for one more cuddle or kiss, using sillinesses to connect with your child, showing them how sad you are going to be without them and how hard goodbye is for you. If you hear a giggle, you’re on the right track. Experiment with what works for your child. One of my sons doesn’t laugh at my sadness, the other does. One son giggles when I am grumpy about the goodbye: “Don’t you go in the other room, I need you here!” said in an indignant way works better for him that when I act sad. 

Small world play

With any soft toy, doll, sock puppet or Lego figures, initiate a dialogue between two figures and see where your child takes it. You might try wondering with your child if the doll is off to work? Ask open-ended questions and pause to see what your child will do with the scenario. (This can lead to surprising insights). Allow your child to speak or act through the guide of play, within the fantasy. And let play be play. It can be helpful to remember that banging a doll's head is JUST a doll's head, speaking rudely or angrily to a doll is just play and doesn’t mean your child is going to do the same with a live child or adult in the real world. When kids get to work through issues during play it can shift their emotions so when they experience the actual goodbye or goodnight the same emotions are not triggered.

Take the less powerful role in play

When your child is leaving a room or just moving away from you, try playfully reversing the goodbye roles. One way to do this is by saying, “Oh, you’re not going off to work are you?” and see how they run with it. They might grab a “work” bag and run away saying “Yes, and you have to stay here!” Then when they “return” you can be grateful and welcoming and plead with them not to leave you again. Play this up further by begging them to stay as they move away again. This game can go on for as long as the child is happy, giggling and has attention for it.

Quick games for reconnecting after separation

Sometimes your child will save up their separation fears until they see you again. Laughter takes the weight of that fear and shifts it positively, so try reconnecting with these smile-making games.

Chase around the playground

I like to make eye contact with my child, so they see me grinning, then I will dart away and have them chase me a little before they catch me, usually giggling.

Blinking contest

Stare at each other until someone blinks. Non-blinker wins. (When you make sure THEY win, you can act super disappointed and demand a re-match, which, of course, you also lose!)

Thumb wars

Go to shake one another’s hands, and grasp them with your thumbs on top. Have your thumbs move from side to side as you both chant “1,2,3,4, I declare a thumb war,” then both try to trap each other’s thumbs under your own and hold them there until the victorious person repeats “1,2,3,4 I win the thumb war.” Again, let your CHILD win, as you take the less powerful role, and demand a re-match that you are sure you will win, and then lose again! This gives them a good dose of empowering victory, a useful element in overcoming separation fears. 

Hide and seek

We play this in the playground or a nearby park and it’s always a hit, even with other children. Try adding in some chasing when you find the hiding players to add in extra giggles.

One way to connect with your child daily

Connecting daily in Special Time gives you time to tune into the challenges on your child's mind and gives your child time to work through their fears using the best tool they have, with play and your good attention. Get started with this free guide. 

Transform your relationship with your child in 5 minutes a day

 

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