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Understanding childhood and separation anxiety as a parent – tips, advice and strategies

5 September 2017 No Comment

Guest post by Stacey Turner, Mum, Teacher and Author of ‘I’m Going To Nursery’ and other books in the My Tiny Book series

As a professional I have helped many children to overcome separation fears and settle at nursery and during the early years of primary school. It’s much more common than people think, and even in those children who don’t usually suffer, all children have the wobbles at some time! I have undertaken a lot of research and I’ve been through an extreme situation of separation anxiety that was borderline separation anxiety disorder, experiencing first-hand what it is like with my eldest daughter. Having experienced the situation on both sides, as a parent and a teacher, I can offer you the reassurance that we can support our little ones through this difficult time.

I can promise you, it’s not naughty behaviour! Anxiety is an emotion. It’s anxious thoughts creeping in – usually in the expectation that something bad is going to happen – and the anxiety takes over. They manifest in how your child’s body reacts to these anxious thoughts in a fight or flight way. While every child and family are different, the basic patterns of anxious thinking, physical and behavioural symptoms appear in a similar way.

The crux of it is, we want to alleviate and overcome anxiety. It’s not only traumatic for the child, it is for the parent/s and can be for the whole family. It’s like a domino effect that impacts people along a chain, as the family group tries to handle the distress. If we don’t try and overcome anxiety, it can end up having greater effects on children and their families as they get older.

How do we tackle anxiety and stop it becoming all-encompassing or a problem in the future?

By acknowledging this emotion and working to break the thought pattern and/or learning to manage thoughts.

By offering lots and lots of reassurance and showing our little ones that it’s ok to feel this way, but it doesn’t have to be like this!

By facing fears and becoming ‘brave’, we teach our children confidence, resilience and to be problem solvers, which is an incredible achievement.

My youngest daughter, Emily, suffers every now and again, but it is what I would term a normal level (wobbles), as some anxiety is developmentally appropriate. One night my husband and I went to walk out the door having said goodnight to the girls, leaving them in the capable hands of our trusted and familiar babysitter. Emily became unsettled and clung to me for dear life. The most wonderful thing happened, Molly stepped in, put her arms around Emily, urged her to come and sit next to her to listen to the stories and reassured Emily that mummy is coming back in a little while and that she knows Emily loves this particular story. I felt so overwhelmed with joy, and so proud of Molly, as to what she has faced and overcome, while I’m mindful of what she still struggles with. With early intervention, we have prevented Molly’s anxiety from developing into separation anxiety disorder and potentially manifesting into other issues.

What is separation anxiety?

Anxiety is provoked in a young child by separation, or the threat of separation, from the child’s mother, father, or primary carer. Separation anxiety is often a normal stage of childhood development from approximately eight months (sometimes younger, as was our case for little Molly) to five years, sometimes older. It can reappear at times of change and stress.

Separation anxiety disorder: children with separation anxiety disorder feel constantly worried or fearful about separation. You may be dealing with a child who is constantly refusing to be separated from you, displaying panicked reactions and complaining of physical symptoms that can’t be soothed.

How do I know if my child has anxiety issues?

Crying, screaming, shouting, throwing a tantrum and clinging to the main carer are healthy and normal reactions and vary in length and intensity between each child. You can ease your child’s separation anxiety by staying patient and consistent, and by gently but firmly setting limits. With the right support, children can usually overcome separation in time. Each child is different and this needs to be taken into consideration.

If your child has separation anxiety they may:

*Be very clingy.

*Retreat to a corner or hide under furniture.

*Have difficulty settling back to a calm state.

*Be reluctant to go to sleep. When a child closes their eyes, you disappear and this can stimulate nightmares, sometimes they are very scary.

*Wetting or soiling the bed.

*Experience lots of toileting accidents.

*Refuse to go to nursery, pre-school or school, even if your child likes it there usually and enjoys being with their friends.

*Complain of physical sickness such as a headache or stomach-ache just before/at the time of separation (this was a struggle for us).

*Fear something will happen to a loved one.

*Worry that they may be permanently separated from you.

*Have little appetite or pick at and complain about food.

If your child’s separation anxiety seems to appear overnight, there is the possibility it could stem from a traumatic experience and is not separation anxiety. The symptoms may appear the same, but are treated differently.

According to the website www.mentalhealth.org.uk, anxiety disorders are estimated to affect 3.3% of children and young adults in the UK. Other websites indicate this percentage to be higher.

To stop anxiety manifesting, it is important we face and overcome it together.

How does My Tiny Book help?

My Tiny Book offers a step-by-step approach in learning to face fears over time by:

  1. Addressing psychological need by offering an alternative solution of support.
  2. Bridging the gap between parent/carer and child, when communication or comprehension is not fully developed for younger children.
  3. Reassuring your child there is no threat in the situation.
  4. Being able to personalise your very own book, there is a creative, bespoke approach to facing fears. The action of ‘doing’ is very soothing and reassuring and your book becomes something of a ‘brag book’.
  5. Reinforcing your strong relationship with your child, making them feel as you tackle their anxiety in a non-direct manner.

What can I do as a parent or carer to help an anxious child?

Think about your routine and when it would be best for you to introduce the book. If your child is particularly anxious at the mere mention of nursery then bed time is not a good time, instead over breakfast is a popular choice. If you are working with a psychologist or occupational therapist, you might be following a programme of progressive muscle relaxation. All parents can access this information from the Internet or using books to help your child relax if they find it difficult to settle at night. Unfortunately, a difficult night settling to sleep, or fractured sleep patterns, in return can cause your child to be unsettled the next day enhancing separation anxiety. Promote wellbeing and relaxation. Stick to the same routine every day and night. Be kind to yourself and be guided by your little one’s responses over time. 

What is the My Tiny Steps approach?

Leave the book around in view, always.

Have photos, scissors and sticky tape ready to create your book.

Take the book out with you, don’t just leave it in the same place at home.

Read each morning, allowing time for pause, and encourage your child to respond and feed back on the illustrations. The pictures are very detailed to reflect the true environment, so use these to point specific things out to provoke a reaction. Can your child guess which child they might be in the book for example? Do they have those toys in their nursery?

After a few times of reading the book, you might feel ready to start asking questions. Here are some suggestions that worked for us:

  • What is it about this situation that is making you upset?

You can create a plan of alternative solutions to help your child transition.

  • What do you think will happen?
  • What is worrying or frightening you?

Please note: Timing and how you ask are important considerations.


Understand that anxiety can impact in different places, circumstances and situations

It is very common for children with anxiety to resist putting their head under water, so swimming lessons were stressful. I remember Molly panicking going under water when she was little and at the time I didn’t link it to separation anxiety. I used a similar approach as the one detailed previously to work with Molly to overcome her anxiety in the water to alleviate the panic.

If your child is too young to communicate, keep reading the book together until you see improvement and involve your child’s teachers in providing an alternative solution to engage your child at drop-off time. Many children who suffer from separation anxiety thrive on responsibility and relish choice. Many children who suffer from separation anxiety do not like change, so you might ask your child’s teachers to transition from room to room slowly and use visuals. Giving warnings of change can be a good support.

For example: “In 5 minutes, we will be going to the art room (teacher holds up picture of art room).” This needs to be repeated two to three times for an anxious child to prepare him/herself for this change.

It is very important to establish if your child and child’s teacher are developing a good relationship as this is VITAL in building trust. Is this the right school? Can I see and do I feel confidence and experience in my child’s teacher? Hopefully, together you and your child’s teachers are helping your child to face and overcome the anxiety of being separated from you. It is certainly not easy, but it will happen. A teacher who ignores a child who is clearly distressed and in need of extra support will only have an adverse effect on the child and the settling in takes a lot longer. The ignoring of the child builds distrust in the teacher.

TIP: Children who suffer from separation anxiety love visuals and routine. By creating pictures in your book, you offer reassurance and reminders of the routine at nursery.

I talk a lot about providing an alternative solution, which isn’t about distracting your child so you can run out the door, but a clever way of providing an opportunity for your child to engage and even open-up. In the book, the teacher says, “It’s ok, will you help me set up the painting”? This is because painting is a popular activity and setting it up with the teacher provides an opportunity for the teacher and child to connect and communicate.

A settling-in period is highly important for anxious children when starting at nursery and school. You might suggest the following plan. Your nursery or school should happily accommodate your needs as you all ultimately want to reach the same goal.

All children respond well to praise so seek out non-anxious behaviour and offer praise and reward wherever possible. “I really like the way you…”!

You know your child best so use what you think will work for you both:

-Walk past the nursery and say, “That looks like a lovely nursery”.

-Walk to the gate and say, “Can you see…”?

“Can you see any children? They look like they are having so much fun together”.

“Can you see any toys? They look lots of fun.”

Say, “Let’s go for a visit and have a look around”. Note all the fun activities. Work your way up from a 10-minute to an hour-long visit gradually if necessary.

-Plan a 10-minute visit during which your child can join an activity and ask permission to take photos of your child only.

-Plan a 20-minute visit when your child can join activities and ask permission to take photos of your child only.

-Plan a 30-minute visit when your child can join activities and ask permission to take photos of your child only. During the longer visit, you might need to go to the toilet. Explain to your child you are going to the toilet and you will be right back and go even if your child becomes upset. Return promptly, so your child learns you did return just as you said.

-Plan an hour’s visit when you join in with your child in all the activities again making toilet trips and returning so they grow familiar with that pattern.

-Together you can create your book with all your photos and start exploring and discussing the nursery/school.

-Then it is time to start leaving your child. Begin with 30 minutes. Lower yourself to their height so you’re talking directly to them and explain you are going to the shop and you are coming back and that they are staying here with their teacher while you’re gone, then walk out. Do not delay your return even if you phone and they confirm your child is happy. Stick to the plan.

-Next arrange an hour’s visit. Then a two-hour visit, and by a four-hour morning or afternoon session you should start seeing signs of acceptance from your child.

When you say goodbye to your child, give them a reason why they’re at nursery and a time you are picking them up. For example, mummy is going to work, or to the shops to buy food, you get to stay here and have fun with your friends and I will be back to pick you up at 3pm just after your afternoon play. If you are working, it can be helpful to take your child to work for a visit so they can see where you work and they can visualise it when they’re in nursery, “This is where mummy works while you are having fun with your friends at nursery”.

By approaching leaving your child at nursery in a step by step manner you are gradually overcoming any obstacles as they come up, and by offering reassurance, you are creating emotional wellbeing.

There is no magic wand, but there is so much you and your child’s teachers can do to help alleviate this anxiety. And there is a lot of help out there for you as parents as well as for your child.

Stacey Turner is an author, Early Years teacher and mum to five and seven-year-old girls. She has first-hand experience of childhood anxiety and separation anxiety through her role as a teacher and a Mummy. Find out more at www.mytinybook.com.









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