Leaving an unhappy, scared child is difficult for both the parent and child. The stress, angst and sadness a child may feel when a parent leaves is known as separation anxiety. Though separation anxiety is challenging, parents with enough patience and understanding can help their child successfully work through it.
A variety of things can trigger separation anxiety. In babies and toddlers, the cause is often as simple as a still-developing sense of object permanence. Developmentally, toddlers can understand that their parents are leaving, but not that they will return.
For older children, the causes of separation anxiety are more complex. Just as each child is different, their particular triggers are different. Experiencing a traumatic event may cause a child to be reluctant to leave the parent’s protective presence. A big change, like a pending divorce, is also a common cause for a child to want to remain close to the parent(s) they fear losing. The loss of a loved one, illness, or even extreme fatigue can also be contributing factors to a child suffering from fear of being away from their mother or father.
Suggestions for Helping Children Cope
Some simple techniques, when properly executed, can help children cope with their feelings of doubt and worry when separated from parents. For toddlers and young children, a transition object can be a great help. A beloved stuffed animal or blanket can help the toddler to feel more secure in a different environment without the comfort of mom or dad. Quick but meaningful separation events should also be practiced, with parents keeping their goodbyes loving, but never drawn-out. This instills in the anxious child the idea that separation is a normal thing—if the parent is nervous or sad about the parting, the child will pick up on and mirror their emotions.
Just as the triggers for older children’s separation anxiety are more complex, so are the techniques for helping them. Most importantly, parents should talk with their children about what they are feeling. The complexity and magnitude of their feelings may be too much for a child to sort out alone, but talking with a parent can help feelings seem more manageable. For example, in the event of a pending divorce, the opportunity to voice worries and ask questions will go a long ways in helping relieve anxiety. A family law attorney in Fort Lauderdale advises divorcing parents to constantly keep the lines of communication with their children open and to avoid being away for too long during the process. In extreme cases, and especially for children older than seven, counseling may be required to prevent long-term separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety is a normal part of childhood. If the symptoms become extreme or prolonged, parents may consider seeking the professional help to evaluate if there is greater issue at play.
Emma is a freelance writer living in Boston. When not writing, she enjoys reading, baking, and indoor rock climbing. Informational credit for this article goes to J. Scott Gunn, a family law attorney in Fort Lauderdale.