Separation anxiety – the fear children feel when they have to be away from parents or home for the first time – is a normal developmental stage for most, and kids can have those feelings of nervousness or apprehension even when they’re left with people they know well, like grandparents or aunties, or when doing something fun, like going on a playdate. But with a little know-how, you can help ease your child through this challenging phase… no worries!
Normalize their fears. “It’s difficult for both parent and child to separate from one another because they have such a strong attachment from the start,” says Marilyn Rifkin, LCSW, a licensed child and adolescent psychotherapist. “The keys to helping your child through this stage of development are sensitivity, patience and understanding.”
As a parent, your first inclination may be to say “calm down,” but, Rifkin advises, it’s much more important to listen. “Parents need to be able to show they understand their child’s feelings and empathize with their anxiety. Saying something like ‘When I was your age, I had a hard time leaving my mommy, too,’ normalizes the situation for them,” she says. Couple that with a loving hug and your child will immediately feel less alone and more grounded.
Soothe their worries. Reiterating that you’re always there for them, in spite of a brief absence, can also help them over the hurdle. “Telling your child ‘I’ll miss you, too, but I’ll see you in a few hours’ can ease the stress in older children,” notes Rifkin. “For little ones who don’t yet have a concept of time, teaching them how to self-soothe – whether it’s holding onto a stuffed animal or blanket, taking deep breaths or imagining their ‘happy place’ – can provide temporary relief until you return.”
As you talk with your child and listen to their fears, explain that it’s part of the growing-up process. “It’s important for kids to know they’re not the only one feeling this way,” says Rifkin. “It can help them to hear that their friends are having a hard time, too.”
Ease them through the transition. If your child needs to stay connected while being introduced to a new situation, such as kindergarten – don’t discourage it. If you can, arrange to go on the bus with them for the first few days or find a child that they can sit with, to feel more comfortable and connected.
In circumstances where they’ll be staying with a relative, family friend or babysitter, help your child acclimate by spending some time all together. “When your child sees you comfortably interacting with their grandparent or auntie, invite them to join you in one of their favorite games,” recommends Rifkin. “They’ll quickly get involved in play and, emotionally, feel safer.” A playdate calls for similar measures. Meet the parents of the other child first to ensure the safety and well-being of your own child, and spend time with them until you see your little one start to relax.