At Brilliant Minds Psychology we aim to create a number of free tipsheets on different ares to help parents with common difficulties that occur during child development. The addition of our Separation Anxiety Tipsheet is the first of many to come.
Separation Anxiety - Tipsheet
From a very young age, children are dependent on their primary caregiver to fulfill both their physical and emotional needs. Separation fears are normal in children from around 7 months of age to the preschool years and typically dissipate spontaneously. A little separation anxiety is okay and a normal part of child development. However, too much separation anxiety can be very stressful for both the child and the parent. Separation Anxiety Disorder often emerges when children are older and well past the age for normal separation fears.
Children with separation anxiety have high levels of anxiety when separated from their primary caregiver. They may worry about something terrible happening to their parent. Children with separation anxiety, experiencing a high level of emotional distress upon separation from their parent may cling, cry, tantrum, they may also report a number of physical complaints such as belly aches, headaches and even vomiting at times.
Understandably separation anxiety can also cause distress in the parent. This tip sheet aims to give you some tips that you can try at home.
WHAT WORKS AND WHAT DOES NOT WORK?
Too much reassurance –this is one of the most commonly used strategies. We may excessively reassure our child that everything will be okay. It is natural to use this response and it is okay in small doses, but we know that too much reassurance only makes anxiety worse! This strategy used too much – just does not work!
Validation – or Empathising with your child. - This is great to use in small doses, but again similar to reassurance too much only makes anxiety grow!
Allowing Avoidance - If your child does not want to go to Kindy because of his separation anxiety and you let him or her stay home – he is avoiding the feared situation. This is called avoidance – and the bad news is – that AVOIDANCE does not work! It actually make the anxiety grow and the child never learns that he can cope and things will be okay! This can be difficult for parents.
Saying Good bye and then Returning -Once you say goodbye, don’t keep returning to check, this only confuses your child and sends the wrong message that there is something to be worried about.
Role Play – role play the situation at home using your child’s favourite toy at home. Use words such as “Wow teddy is brave“ to introduce the idea of BRAVE behavior.
What Works and What Doesn’t? (CONTINUED)
Parent Modeling Brave Behaviour - Stay calm – Look calm and confident and your child is likely to mirror your behavior. If you are anxious or upset, then they believe there is a reason to be worried about you leaving. However if you remain calm prior to separating, the child is more likely to believe that there is nothing to worry about. One way to reduce your own anxiety is to only leave your child places where you feel confident (e.g., a trustworthy daycare centre).
BUILD BRAVE BEHAVIOUR
Praise BRAVE behavior - Praise, tickle and give lots of attention to your child when they are showing you BRAVE behavior. If you know that your child tends to get anxious in a specific setting, look for opportunities to praise strong or brave behavior.
Engage the child in activity. Engage your child in an activity prior to departure. In doing this, your child will be more distracted and having fun – thus less likely to feel anxious about you leaving. During this activity provide praise to acknowledge the behavior.
Have a fun goodbye routine – Have a special routine you do with your child when you are about to leave (e.g., a secret handshake) makes the goodbye process a little bit less upsetting for the child.
Create a Step-Ladder – We know exposure is the best treatment for anxiety conditions
In summary, when it comes to anxiety avoid using the following unhelpful strategies.
- Excessive reassurance
- Being too directive
- Allowing avoidance
- Becoming impatient
Prevent Avoidance, to help your child boss back anxiety you may find making a Step Ladder helpful, this way your child can boss back anxiety in steps. Always start with low anxiety fears. An example is set below. Every time your child completes a set, follow up with lots of praise to reinforce – Brave behavior!
STEPLADDERS – Exposure Therapy
- Create a Fear List
- Rate your child’s fear (0 no fear, 10 = high level of fear)
- Create a Step-Ladder – We know exposure is the best treatment for anxiety conditions.
Stay home with Dad while Mum goes outside to check mail ( Fear Rating of 1)
Stay home with Dad while Mum goes shopping (Fear Rating of 5)
Stay at Grandma’s house for 30 minutes without Mum (Fear Rating of 6).