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Dealing with Separation Anxiety in Children

Updated: Sep 29, 2023

In the early exploration stage of less familiar places and people (around 8 months – 2 years old), your child may experience an intense anxiousness and reluctant to be separated from their parents or caregivers. Tantrums, crying, clinginess are some of the common child’s distress signs when you say goodbye to your child or leave him/her in the places when daddy or mummy leaving is expected (e.g., school, child care center).

Separation anxiety in children is a healthy reaction to the separation from their caregivers. However, parents with special needs children may face challenges when communicating about their temporary leaving but will return later. Despite separation anxiety often fades by the age 2 years, it is also worth to take note that children with developmental delays or special needs may underdeveloped in their ability to form secure attachment and to be separated from their caregivers.

How to Deal with Separation Anxiety in Your Child?

  • Practice Brief Separation

Brief separation helps to ease the transition from one setting to another. Parents can start the practice by leaving your distressed child in a new environment for a brief period (e.g., 5 minutes) and short distance (sitting behind the classroom) while gradually increase the time and distance. Consistent practice and patience are importance during this training period.

  • Structure Goodbye Ritual

A simple hand waving or a goodbye kiss prior to leaving your child can be reassuring; especially for children with special needs who often needed structure to master the world around them.

  • Avoid Scolding Your Child When He/She is Upset

It is normal for parents to experience intense stress when your child behaves in a way to avoid being separated from their loved ones (e.g., crying, throw tantrums). To deal with your child’s distress, it is important for to be patient and simply acknowledge their anxiety and distress. Sometimes a hug and rub your child’s back gently can be useful to reassure your distressed child.

  • Keep Up Your Promises

Set a clear expectation for your child, like “I will pick you up at 4pm”, “I will be right outside the door when your class is dismissed”. Always be remembered to follow through on your promises.

  • Language Usage

It is also important for the new care provider (e.g., teachers, babysitter) to avoid using negatively-framed language such as “Your mummy is left”, “She will leave your behind if you keep crying”; instead, use more positive languages like “She will be back at ____pm” and “there’s only two hours left to see your mummy again”.

  • Social Story

Social stories had proven to be effective to assist children with special needs in adapting to their unfamiliar social environments. Prior to a new transition, parents/caregiver can take photos of the places (e.g., classrooms, toilet) or people (e.g., teacher, helper) to prepare your child on what to expect for the rest of the day (e.g., the people that they expected to see, places that are expected to stay without the presence of mummy/daddy).

  • Establish Consistent Limits

Adults’ stress level can contribute to a child’s separation anxiety. Always remember that it takes times for the children to deal with their separation anxiety and establish a sense of independence. Apart from reassurances, it is also vital to practice consistent limits to help your distressed child to adjust to his/her new environment.

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