Practical Help for Families Struggling with Separation Anxiety

Practical Help for Families Struggling with Separation Anxiety

“Nooooo, Mommy, Noooooo! Don’t GO!” screams the little fighting octopus fastened to your legs. It can be heart wrenching and embarrassing to pry your child away from you, and inconvenient when you’ve got a time constraint. (Why is my child the only one who gets hysterical every time we try to leave childcare to go to the church service?)

I have coached numerous parents of kids with separation anxiety, and there seems to be patterns of common underlying issues that feed this challenge:

  • A child’s sensory sensitivities can make busy or less familiar environments over-stimulating, or just generally increase a child’s anxiety.
  • Family stress – A chaotic family schedule or outside source of stress creates insecurity and hinders quality, joy-filled attention from a parent.
  • Parents’ anxiety or guilt about their child’s distress during separation inadvertently sends a message expressed through non-verbals that, “You should be upset. I’m doing a terrible thing by leaving you!”

The following story of a coaching family’s success gives lots of practical strategies for other families struggling with this challenge.

Erik had such strong separation anxiety that participating in bible studies and church nurseries was “an absolute and epic fail,” according to his mom, Sarah. By the time he was three, Sarah and her husband Ryan sought out parent coaching for the intense, prolonged crying and clinging. Erik had all three issues going on:

  • Sensory sensitivity: He was born at just 28 weeks, resulting in sensory sensitivities and increased anxiety.
  • Family stress: His parents utilized several different kinds of childcare to manage demanding, full-time jobs and unpredictable schedules.
  • Parent’s anxiety/guilt: His mom felt very badly about Erik’s premature birth and it’s impact on him. This guilt and anxiety caused her to be filled with ambivalence and angst during separation times.  

Sarah and Ryan learned to tune into the cues that Erik would give when he was becoming overwhelmed, which helped them find creative and empowering ways to support him. They developed a thoughtful plan to help him in each of these three areas:

    • Adjust the sensory environment
      • Since a loud, high-energy response from a caregiver was overstimulating, his care providers learned to be calm, but engaging and fun. They affirmed whatever he did to eventually calm himself.
      • In order to build success, Sarah and Ryan started with transitions to settings that were controlled and predictable, initially avoiding church nurseries or high energy friends’ or cousins’ homes.
    • Decrease stress: Make life more predictable and connective
      • Slight adjustments in their schedule reduced the frequency and different environments in which Erik had to separate.
      • Bedtime talks helped him process and adjust to the next day.
      • A weekly calendar in his room with pictures of key people he would see throughout the week helped him anticipate events.
        • They laminated faces of caregivers and stuck velcro on the back to easily move their pictures to various days, which was especially helpful if a parent was traveling. They also laminated favorite activities he would like to do with these caregivers to help him look forward to those times.
      • Predictable morning routines included some special 1:1 time. If a caregiver was coming to the house, they began to take Erik for “loops” in the car just before having to leave, lasting anywhere from one to ten minutes. This was his special time with a parent to talk, pray, listen to a favorite song, or just be with them, and were a key to helping him separate.
    • Let go of guilt and anxiety at separations
      • When Sarah had a plan in place to help Erik, she had confidence in his growing success, which decreased her anxiety and guilt. She began to be calm and light-hearted and sincerely communicate, “You feel sad now, but you’ll be ok. Soon you’ll be having fun!”

The result of this effort was that Erik successfully completed two years of preschool and entered kindergarten last fall. Sarah shared some deep insights: “Ultimately, I have recognized this ‘inconvenience’ with our precious son to be a sign that he is a deep connector and establishes trust and authenticity with key people in his life. Once he feels known and understood, he can more easily succeed in different environments away from us. Any child that struggles to be released from mom or dad has underlying needs that simply need to be attuned to properly; and when that is done – the child will thrive in a way that builds great confidence and joy! He or she will be prepared to utilize their deep, God-given sensitivity to be highly compassionate to those around them.”

Instead of being anxious or critical of your child’s sensitivity and needs, how could you:

  1. meet their sensory needs for calm environments?
  2. make life more predictable and connective?
  3. let go of your anxiety when it’s time to separate?
  4. channel their God-given sensitivity toward compassion for others?

Take 10 to 15 minutes to find out your strengths and challenges with our free parenting assessment.


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