Evelyn Mendal, LMHC
Managing Separation Anxiety in 5 Steps
Separation anxiety is SO hard to experience. It is just as hard (if not harder) on the parent than it is on the child. The feelings that come up for parents during a difficult separation range from guilt to complete helplessness. And since it seems that the pandemic life has only exacerbated separation anxiety on all fronts, we are going to help you manage your child’s separation anxiety in 5 steps.
1. Stay as cool, calm, and collected as possible, as you are both building up the separation. Children can “feel all the feels” that YOU feel - yup, they absorb it right out of your brain through what are known as “mirror neurons.” Practice your confidence in your body language, tone of voice, and presence.
2. Be concrete and specific about what’s to come. Break down the plan with your little. Who are they going to stay with, what kind of things they will do, what you will do, and best of all, what you will both do together when you are reunited!
3. Acknowledge and permit all of their big feelings. Crying is allowed. Pouting is allowed. Clinging is allowed. ALL feelings are allowed and permitted. Acknowledge your child’s feelings out loud (“You’re having a hard time saying goodbye. It’s okay to be sad/cry.”). These feelings can exist, and you can STILL leave your child. Leaving your child amidst a big feeling does not make you a bad parent.
4. Keep goodbyes short and sweet. The less lingering there is, the better. The reason for this ties back to the confident parent piece. Children experience separation anxiety because they feel unsafe. If parents are dropping off their kids, letting the kids know they will be okay there but then won’t physically leave them, the kids receive the message that maybe they are not safe after all. A parent can instead acknowledge the challenge & confidently exit, promising that they will always come back (e.g., “It’s okay to be sad. Saying goodbye is hard. You are safe here and I can’t wait to pick you up after lunch so we can go to the park. See you soon!”).
5. Practice through play. Learning new skills happens most often outside of the overwhelming moments. Practice separation and reunion through games such as peek-a-boo, hide-and-seek, role-playing, storytelling, doll play, and books. Play provides a safe environment in which kids can better internalize emotionally challenging concepts.
It is important to remember that learning takes time, practice, and a TON of repetition. Each child is different and learns at their own pace. The more consistent you are with your approach, the quicker your child will grasp it. Good luck!