Separation Anxiety: A Guide to Recognising and Alleviating the Symptoms

A guide to separation anxiety - separation anxiety in toddler - signs of separation anxiety

Separation Anxiety: A Guide to Recognising and Alleviating the Symptoms

There’s no doubt that 2020 has been a strange period in all of our lives. For parents, in particular, we’ve had to adapt to homeschooling our children – and in many cases – juggling work with childcare. But there’s been a beauty to the last few months too; families have been able to spend more time together and there’s something special about watching your kids learn and develop every day.

Now, with lockdown restrictions being lifted, millions of parents are having to face the reality that their kids could be back at school in just a few short weeks; for some even sooner, if they’re returning to the office and are in need of childcare.

It’s absolutely normal for you and your child to feel anxious about this, having spent months in each other’s company and, in many cases, seeing very few people from outside your own quarantine bubble, especially when lockdown was first introduced.

Given the circumstances, you may begin to notice behaviours in your child associated with separation anxiety, if they’re of the age where they know what’s going on. You may even start to recognise the symptoms in yourself as the time gets closer.

The rest of this guide will explore what separation anxiety is, how to spot the symptoms and what you can do to ease it, to make the transition back to nursery and school as easy as possible for both of you.

What is separation anxiety?

Firstly, it’s important to note that separation anxiety is particularly common in younger children, typically between the ages of 6 months and 3 years. It’s actually a sign that your baby/toddler realises how dependent they are on the people that care for them and how strong of a bond they have with them. They can feel very upset or unsafe when faced with new situations, especially if you are not by their side to reassure them that everything is OK.

Separation anxiety, along with the fear of strangers, is part of your child’s development which they usually grow out of. However, advice on the NHS website states that if your child’s separation anxiety is causing them a lot of distress, if they’re upset for a long time after you’ve left them, or it’s been going on for more than a few weeks, you should talk to your health visitor. Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD) is a recognised condition that causes a child to feel intense worry and fear at the prospect of being away from loved ones.

Having experienced a significant social shift over the last few months, it is likely that their anxiety may be heightened at this time, which is why it’s a good idea to be alert to the symptoms and to be able to provide both emotional support and strategies to help your child cope with the changes.

A guide to separation anxiety - separation anxiety in toddler - signs of separation anxiety

What are the symptoms of separation anxiety?

Here are some of the symptoms you may recognise in your child in the run-up to, or during the first few days – or weeks – or them returning to nursery/school:

  • Clinginess
  • Crying
  • Refusing to do things that mean they will be separated from you
  • Refusing to go to sleep or poor sleep
  • Nightmares
  • Physical illness (i.e. headaches, stomach ache, vomiting)
  • Panic or temper tantrums

In yourself, you may feel:

  • Tearful
  • Excessive worry about being away from your child
  • A fear that something bad may happen to you or your child
  • Physically ill

Again, adult Separation Anxiety Disorder is a recognised condition – please always speak to a medical professional if you feel this may apply to you. Typically, those with SAD have had the symptoms for a prolonged period, and are intense enough to impact their day to day functioning.

Separation anxiety and ‘mum guilt’

Mum guilt’ is a real thing and it’s a powerful emotion. It’s also very common – in one survey of 900 mums, 68% said they experience the feeling once to twice a day, with the majority citing ‘not spending enough time with the kids’ as the main cause.

It’s only natural, then, that sending your child back to nursery or school, after being with them for a prolonged period of time, is going to make you feel guilty. You may also feel a sense of guilt and responsibility for causing the separation anxiety, but as we’ve mentioned earlier, separation anxiety is completely normal and is expected to be heightened under the current circumstances.

So, it’s not just me then?

Absolutely not. There are over 8 million school-age children in the UK right now – that’s a lot of parents and children preparing for change over the coming months. In fact, Google data shows that searches for ‘separation anxiety’ are on the rise (see the graph below), with more than 39,000 searches made on the topic in June.

Guide to separation anxiety - separation anxiety in toddler - signs of separation anxiety

Official data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that although almost 9 in 10 adults with children of school age (89%) reported that it was either very or fairly likely that those children would return to school when the new term begins, the main concerns are that their child may catch Coronavirus, or that their child’s mental health and wellbeing may be impacted due to changes in the school because of the virus.

When parenting network Mas and Pas asked its audience whether they’re feeling anxious about their child returning to nursery/school, the feeling was split. One mum, whose daughter recently returned back to childcare, said: 

My little girl went back a month or so ago and I was really worried. But after the first day, it all felt pretty normal again and now I’m fine. I’ve been really impressed with all that the nursery has done to keep them safe.

Another parent said:

My eldest son is starting primary school in September. I’m feeling a bit anxious and nervous, but don’t let him see it. Kids feed off your emotions so I’m keeping everything positive and light about school for him. I’ve been discussing with him how much fun he’ll have, playing with the other kids and making new friends, etc. He’s already had a Zoom meeting with his new teacher, which was really nice.

How to deal with separation anxiety

Here are a few ways you can make the separation process easier for both you and your child. These are good to implement even before you have recognised any symptoms as they can help to alleviate the onset of separation anxiety.

Explain the day to them – help your child feel more in control of the change that’s about to happen by telling them what to expect. Go through the new routine with them and tell them what time you’ll be back to collect them. Focus on the positives by letting them hear your excitement, ‘you’ll get to see all your friends again, that will be so much fun, won’t it?’.

Practice separation – now lockdown restrictions are being lifted, could you get your child used to being with family members again by leaving them in their care for a few hours? If your child is at nursery, consider easing them back in by a few half days, or just 1-2 times a week for a little while.

Develop a quick ‘goodbye’ ritual – have fun with your child by coming up with a goodbye ritual that works for you – it could be something as simple as blowing a kiss to each other before they enter the classroom. Make it short and sweet, the longer you linger the more time you’ll both have to dwell on the fact you’ll be apart for the next few hours.

Let them take something from home – at the moment, due to COVID-19, there may be limitations as to what your child can bring from home. A small item such as a bracelet will be fine and will provide a level of comfort and reassurance. Alternatively you could draw a picture on your child’s arm so that each time they look at it they will be reminded of you and the fun you had together.

Give them something to look forward to – once your child has returned home, spend some undivided time with them doing something they’ve been looking forward to all day. This could involve playing a game, or if your child enjoys helping around the house, perhaps they could help prepare dinner or get the table ready. This is good if you’re experiencing separation anxiety too as you’ll know that in a few hours you’ll be together again doing the activity you’ve chosen.

Check in on them – part of the reason parents feel separation anxiety is because being without their child is out of their control. If allowed, call the nursery or school once a day for the first few days to see how your child is settling in. It will be reassuring to hear that they’re having fun and shows that they’ve not taken the change as hard as you thought they might.

What the expert says

Clinical psychologist and author Sarah Mundy is an expert on separation anxiety. Her book, Please Stay Here, I want you Near, focuses on the topic and provides a platform to help young children understand and cope with spending time away from their parents. She says:

Emotions are contagious (physiologically so) and our anxiety is likely to only heighten theirs.  That said, it is so hard for us not to feel anxious about leaving our little ones. I remember clearly being in floods of tears dropping my first off at nursery, which I am sure wasn’t helpful for him.  I’m now on my third and my calm goodbye helped him no end!

If leaving your child makes you feel very anxious do try not to let them see this and spend some time calming yourself before you leave them. Try to remember that you are helping them learn to cope without you and show trust in, and good communication with their childcare setting. I always take comfort in the fact that my children show this anxiety because they would prefer to be with me but that, as long as I am confident in who is looking after them, they will be fine without me.

Although children generally grow out of separation anxiety at around that age of three, transitions, anxiety, tiredness and illness are all likely to increase this feeling at times.  Particularly now, when we have spent so much time together and the world feels like a scary and unpredictable place, it is likely that many children (and parents) will show separation anxiety on their return to school. I’m already seeing an increase in my clinical work.

It is so important not to dismiss your child’s feelings (or your own). As parents, we often want to make things better by saying “don’t be silly, you’ll be fine!” but it is important that children feel heard and that their feelings are accepted and named for them. When we can look after our own feelings, and help children make sense of theirs, what may have felt overwhelming can be much more manageable.

Has your child experienced separation anxiety since returning to school or nursery after lockdown?

Let us know how you found the transition over in our parenting community.

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