Separation anxiety, while difficult, is often a normal part of development. There are many ways to help your child cope with separation anxiety; however, there could be deeper emotions and traits impacting your child’s behavior that may not actually be based on separation issues. Coming up with a plan to help your child through this time means that you need to consider why they are struggling.
This blog post lists a number of situations and emotions that can look similar to separation anxiety. These are beneficial to consider as you work to figure out what will be most helpful to your child. Keep in mind that your child might have both the listed concern and separation anxiety, but keeping an open mind will help you make the most accurate determination.
A common symptom of separation anxiety is the fear of sleeping alone. However, not all children who are afraid to sleep alone may be experiencing separation anxiety. They may simply be struggling with a lifestyle change. For example, a child who has co-slept with his parents regularly will not be comfortable suddenly sleeping alone.
Lack of Experience
Many children need to experience something multiple times before they begin to start feeling comfortable with the situation. A child who has never been left with a babysitter is not necessarily experiencing separation anxiety when you try to walk out the door; she may be experiencing uncertainty at this new situation. Allowing time for an adjustment period is often required to make the situation go more smoothly for everyone.
Your baby cries when an unfamiliar aunt tries to pick him up. Your preschooler refuses to say “hello” to your friend. Your toddler hides her face when the cashier offers a free sticker. This behavior can simply be attributed to your child being shy and uncomfortable around new people rather than separation anxiety. These types of children will need more time to warm up in social situations, and this is not something that can be rushed.
Children can begin to experience real fear at a young age – fear of the dark, the unknown, getting hurt, or even monsters under the bed. These children will cling to you tightly when you try to leave them at bedtime, refuse to leave your side at the playground, or refuse to try new extracurricular activities. This clingy behavior may look like separation anxiety, but there could be a deeper emotion there that needs addressed. In these situations your child is looking to you for protection and comfort, and you will need to work together to help your child overcome these fears and venture confidently into the world.
We don’t always know what things our children have overheard, and they may be quietly worrying about these things without vocalizing their fears. They may have heard a news story about a natural disaster, or they may have a friend whose grandparent recently passed away. When these things happen, your child might begin to worry more about you when you are out of sight, and her solution is to stay by you at all times. Talking with your child about her concerns is helpful in these situations. Explain the steps that you take to keep yourself safe, give her permission to call or text you when they are worried, and remain calm and reassuring as you communicate with her.
All of a sudden, your child begins to behave differently in normal situations. Your grade-schooler refuses to have a simple conversation with the neighbor. Your kindergartener begs to stay home from school. Your preschooler won’t leave your side at the library to look for a book. In these situations, a previously embarrassing situation could be to blame. You will want to ask a few gentle “why” questions to see if you can figure out what is making your child feel uncomfortable. Maybe someone laughed at him in school, or he got lost on the way back to the classroom. You will want to explain to your child that these situations (and the embarrassment that they feel,) is perfectly normal, and then help them move past that discomfort and the confidence that next time with probably be a better situation.