Disclaimer: The information and strategies presented in this blog are intended to provide guidance and support to parents dealing with typical developmental separation anxiety and struggles in children. This content is not intended for children with diagnosed separation anxiety disorder or other related conditions that require professional intervention.
Table of Contents
6 Causes of Separation Struggles in Children
1. Children are dependent, so separation feels threatening.
Children are dependent on their caregivers to meet all of their needs. Separation can feel alarming for children because it threatens their need for survival and connection. When kids are in school, they are separated from their primary caregivers for a significant amount of time, so it makes sense that this feels tricky for some kids.
2. Separation anxiety is part of child development.
Separation anxiety is related to the development of “object permanence.” Object permanence is when infants and toddlers start to understand that people continue to exist even when they are no longer in sight. This new skill is tricky because infants and toddlers don’t have a concept of time, so when someone is out of their sight, they know they still exist but don’t know when they will return. From a child’s perspective, you have left and may never come back.
3. Separation anxiety can be a genetic trait.
Every child is born with a unique temperament. The traits of both parents influence this temperament. Some children are born with an anxious temperament, so they are more susceptible to worry. If one or both parents are anxious, this trait can be passed on to a child.
4. Separation anxiety can be learned.
Just like a child can learn to speak by listening to and observing their parents speak, they can learn to fear separation. If a child observes a parent is anxious during school drop-off through their facial expression, body language, or tone of voice, it can signal to them that goodbyes are something to fear.
5. Separation can be difficult when a child is hungry, tired, or sick.
Children are often more clingy during separation when they are tired, hungry, or in pain. When their bodies are depleted, they have a lower threshold for stress, so it makes sense that they are more easily triggered.
6. Separation can feel more challenging during life transitions.
Children will often struggle with separation when it occurs during a life transition or change in routine. Big changes, like the start of a new daycare, moving to a new school, the arrival of a new sibling, or the loss of a close relationship, are common triggers for separation anxiety.
Common Signs of Separation Anxiety
Joey struggled with the transition to preschool. He would fight his dad to get into his car seat and cling to his body when they got to school. As soon as he said goodbye, Joey would burst into tears. He would throw his body on the ground and have a tantrum when his parents would leave.
“Noooo, Daddy! Don’t leave me! Please don’t go!”
When Joey started elementary school, instead of crying or clinging to his parents, he repeatedly asked questions about his concerns and required a lot of reassurance.
“What if you forget to pick me up? What if I get hurt while you’re gone? What if you get in an accident?”
As Joey got older, he often woke up saying, “I don’t feel good. My tummy hurts.”
In each scenario, Joey is showing common signs of separation anxiety. Here is a list of the most common signs:
- Repeatedly asking questions about fears or concerns before school.
- Lasting worry that something bad will happen when they’re at school.
- Refusal to be apart from parents; refusal to go to school.
- Physical symptoms on school days such as stomachaches and headaches.
- More frequent or intense temper tantrums on school days.
It’s important to understand the signs and not dismiss them as mere tantrums or mood swings.
“Prepare for the Goodbye” to Help Overcome School-Related Separation Anxiety
The most practical strategy to support a child with separation anxiety and alleviate their worry during school drop-offs is to prepare them for the goodbye ahead of time. The key is to start small. Choose one of the following ways to prepare and build in more as you go.
1. Create a Goodbye Ritual
Before going to school, prepare for separation by creating a special routine. Plan this and recite it at home to help your child know what to expect during drop-offs. You can also offer an item at the end of the ritual to bridge the separation, just like many parents do to bridge the separation at bedtime.
Here are a few examples of goodbye rituals:
- One kiss, one hug, and exchange a special handshake.
- Draw matching hearts of each other’s hands and blow one kiss goodbye.
- Give a big bear hug and put matching bracelets on each other.
2. Talk About the Plan
Talk about the plan before school, at breakfast, or on the drive so your child knows what to expect.
- “I’m going to walk you to your classroom. We can do our special handshake, and then I will leave. I will come back and pick you up at your classroom at 3 p.m.”
- “Here’s the plan: after breakfast tomorrow, Dad will take you to school. I will help you get into the car seat and wave goodbye on the porch. After school, he will take you home, and I will wait on the porch to help you out of the van.”
3. Role-play Separation
Use your child’s favourite toys to help them get more comfortable with separation and practice confident goodbyes.
- “The daddy bear will drop off the baby bear at daycare. Do you want to play with the daddy or baby bear?”
- “Rocky will leave her baby, Pebbles, with a sitter today. Before she leaves, she will do a special handshake with Pebbles. Can you show me what handshake they should do?”
4. Remind Them of the Return
Shifting your child’s attention to the reunion can help them feel less anxious about separating.
- “After preschool, I will give you three big kisses and two big hugs.”
- “I can’t wait to see you after school!”
5. Build in Extra Moments of Connection
Proactively “fill” your child’s “cup” with connection prior to drop-offs or goodbyes. This can happen the evening before school, the morning before drop-offs, or sprinkled in throughout the day.
- Read books together after breakfast.
- Leave a love note in their lunch box.
- Create matching bracelets together to wear during the day.
The key is to start small. Choose one of the following ways to prepare and build in more as you go.
A Note for Parents
First, separation anxiety can be a sign that your child is securely attached to you! Being apart from you – a safe, trusted, and nurturing relationship – can feel daunting, terrifying and threatening.
Second, separation anxiety can also feel really tough for you. It can be gut-wrenching to see your child in distress. It can make leaving them at school feel impossible. This blog is intended to give you hope, and the tools included will help your child and you – and nurture your relationship along the way!
Finally, for more support, check out our Separations and Goodbyes course! The 50-minute course includes a 5-step framework proven to ease separation, and is packed with practical tools and scripts you can start using today!
If you suspect that your child may have a more serious anxiety disorder, it is recommended to consult a qualified mental health professional for appropriate assessment and treatment. The suggestions provided here are aimed at helping parents nurture their child’s emotional well-being and manage common separation challenges that arise during normal stages of development.