Separation Anxiety: How to handle “Don’t Leave Me’ fear

The start of a new year and a new term will see many little ones, just like two-year-old HRH Princess Charlotte, off on their next big adventure in life – starting nursery or pre-school. On such a big occasion, it’s completely normal for any child to be a bit nervous and a little fearful about what lies ahead, resulting in them becoming upset, clingy and begging parents not to leave. Thankfully, most children will soon adapt, their concerns will fade and they will happily embrace their new environment. However, if the behaviour continues it may be a sign of separation anxiety disorder. Children’s Mental Health ambassador, Stacey Turner, has first-hand experience of managing childhood anxiety as a parent and educator and here explains why it’s important to recognise your child’s separation anxiety and what you can do about it…

 Separation anxiety is anxiety provoked in a young child by separation, or the threat of separation, from the child’s mother or main carer. It’s a normal stage of childhood development from approximately eight months (sometimes younger, as was the case with our daughter) to five years, although it can reappear in older children at times of significant change and stress such as a stay in hospital, the death of a loved one or pet or a change in environment, such as moving home or changing schools. Anxiety is an emotion with the sole purpose of helping us deal with the world around us, but it is vital for the health and wellbeing of your child to recognise separation anxiety, as it is a form of anxiety requiring help and support.

The January slump can be a grim time for many people, but if you have a looming worry about your child starting nursery, then you may be feeling anxious and overwhelmed by it. Try and break free from that feeling and learn how you can be guiding your child, leading the way and feeling better for it.

The most important part of your child starting nursery is forming a healthy attachment from the very beginning. It’s okay to let your child’s nursery know you are worried, they will understand and some nurseries have a settling-in program. They know that your concerns are out of protection of your child and they are just as keen to see your child settled and happily enjoying the nursery environment, making friends and trusting the teachers.

Prepare your child by talking about nursery, introducing books such as I’m Going to Nursery, which offers reassurance that there is no threat and helps bridge the gap of communication if your child is still quite young. Stay and play sessions are a lovely way for you to reassure your child and I recommend arranging introductory visits gradually increasing to a half or full day.

Send in a transient belonging. I once sent my daughter Molly into nursery in a light sparkly scarf wrapped around her that I’d slept in so she had my scent. She loved walking around in it all day pretending she was a fairy! You could also consider putting together a sensory box with items to meet their sensory needs, such as soothing music for the ears, a squishy tacky ball for touch, photos for the eyes and maybe a little pack of raisins for taste.

Saying goodbye is the bit all parents dread! You can confidently guide your child with your goodbye demonstrating you trust your child’s teachers by establishing a little goodbye routine. You might like to start by getting down to your child’s level, looking them in the eyes, and in a friendly manner and soft controlled tone, start your goodbye. You could create this bit together, have a secret little song or saying! In whatever way you say your goodbyes, it is important you are specific with your details, yet offering comfort, such as: “I can see you feel upset we are going to be apart. It’s okay to feel the way you do. Let’s find your teacher and let him/her know you feel upset.”

In front of your child, say to that person: “Molly is feeling upset at us parting, but she understands I need to leave. Can you please support her and help her feel okay about this?” Then say to your child: “Mummy must go now. I will be back to pick you up and I want to hear all about your day and your teacher knows how you feel and is here to offer you support. I will be back later, goodbye.” On some days, no words may be necessary, but instead a secret exchange, for example closing your eyes with a little nod of your head and a smile can be enough. Nursery staff and teachers will be ready and on hand to help with any upset child – or parent.

And while there is no magic wand to cast a spell and banish all fears forever, this is a good place to start to offer the reassurance you and your little one need to help soothe any wobbles. You are putting positive reinforcement in place should separation anxiety hit…and if it does, there is a lot more you can do. We can guide our children, help them to feel better and show them it’s not so scary out in the big world.

Five reasons why it is important to recognise separation anxiety and put the appropriate support and care in place to:

1) Establish and form healthy attachments to people and places.

2) Prevent naughty behaviour being misunderstood or a child labelled as attention-seeking.

3) Put help and support in place to minimise distress within the family and at nursery/school.

4) Teach a child how to reframe their thinking to overcome the current negative thought patterns. This then paves the way for a happier and clearer way forward, as the child becomes confident using these learnt skills.

5) Build confidence, trust and resilience within a child to happily and confidently move forward.

  • Signs of separations anxiety include:
  • Being very clingy.
  • Retreating to a corner or hiding under furniture.
  • Having difficulty settling back to a calm state.
  • Finding it distressing to be in their own bedroom and settle themselves to sleep.
  • Being reluctant to go to sleep: When a child closes their eyes, you disappear and this can stimulate nightmares.
  • Wetting or soiling the bed.
  • Experiencing toileting accidents in the day.
  • Refusing to go to school: Even if your child likes school and their friends.
  • Complaining of physical sickness such as a stomach ache just before or at the time of separation.
  • Fearing something will happen to a loved one.
  • Worrying that they may be permanently separated from you.
  • Having little appetite or picking at and complaining about food.

If you have any serious concerns about your child, do speak to your GP who may be able to refer you and your child for additional professional help.

Originally from Australia, Stacey is a mum to two young daughters (5 & 7) and a former early years teacher. She is a champion for a positive step forward in highlighting children’s anxiety/separation anxiety and the author of I’m going to Nursery.

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