A popular topic among parents with preschool-age children, separation anxiety, is a normal part of development for most younger children. Like most things, kids have varying levels of comfort and security, and that becomes very apparent at pretty much any daycare or preschool.
It’s the morning drop off, and you’ll see a child or two who turn and latch onto their parent. Or, you’ll see and hear a child crying as the parent is saying goodbye as they try to get out the door to go to work.
Most kids go through some of these behaviors depending on many factors, but most kids are quickly able to get their anxiety under control. In fact, when you talk with daycare and preschool teachers, most will tell you that the majority of children who exhibit mild separation anxiety will quickly, within a couple minutes of the parent leaving, settle and move on to an activity in the classroom or start to play with another child.
So, the usual advice for kids with this mild anxiety is for the parent to be fairly matter-of-fact, tell his or her child that they love them, give them a hug and a kiss, tell them they will be back later in the afternoon to pick them up, and simply leave. This is easier said than done for parents, especially first-time parents, but this procedure will work for most kids.
Some kids may benefit from having a tangible object, called a transitional object, that provides some reassurance while the parent is gone, such as a small photo of the parent(s), or a trinket that the child can hold onto to give back to the parent in the afternoon.
However, there are some kids who have a more difficult time over a more extended period of time. These kids demonstrate significant resistance to separating, are very difficult to console once the parent leaves, and demonstrate these behaviors pretty consistently each day. These kids, and parents, may require more significant help with behavioral procedures that may involve a gradual process of longer periods of separation combined with some relaxation skills for the child. This does require some specific behavioral management techniques that parents learn.
Sometimes we see this extreme separation anxiety appear, or re-appear, in school-age children. You’ve heard the terms school phobia or school refusal, and sometimes, these are the result, or a part of, this more extreme separation anxiety. The same behavioral procedures, to systematically expose the child to controlled periods of separation while providing calming activities and coping skills that the child can use to calm him or herself are used. As a side note, probably the worst approach in these situations, is to allow the child to stay at home.
The very severe cases may require a combination of behavioral and medical approaches, but these are much less frequent.
The great news is that anxiety, in general, but separation anxiety specifically, can be treated effectively.
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