Separation Anxiety: How to Move Children From Anxious to Brave

How to Move Children Through Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety has an important job to do. It’s there to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Children (and adults) are wired to feel unsafe when there is a felt sense of separation. This anxiety drives children to restore proximity back to the safety of their important adults. If there was no separation anxiety, we’d see too many kiddos walking into the wide open arms of the world to explore faraway lands or the toy section at Target. Of course, we want them to expand their reach into the world eventually. Just not before we’ve had the opportunity to nurture the sensibility and resourcefulness they’ll need along the way.

Separation anxiety also exists in adults to keep children safe. If we truly don’t know where our children are, or if we don’t trust that they are in the safe, loving care of another adult, the distress will drive us to bring them close to us again. The problem isn’t separation anxiety, the problem is when it happens in circumstances that are actually safe.

When their distress feels too big.

Separation anxiety can feel awful for everyone – us too – but provided children are in the loving care of another adult, there is no need to avoid separation. We’ll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety rises in response to theirs. In fact, avoiding separation in circumstances where children are actually safe, will only make their separation anxiety bigger. Here’s how that works.

The brain learns from experience, so the more they avoid, the more they will be driven to avoid. As the important adult in their lives, your child’s distress will trigger distress in you. This is how it’s meant to work. It happens to mobilise us to do whatever it takes to meet their needs and keep them safe. Safety is the ultimate goal of separation anxiety. It’s connected to our survival, which is why it feels so fierce. It’s primal and instinctive, but that doesn’t mean it’s always necessary.

They key is for us to gently provide opportunities (experiences) for the brain to learn that anxiety doesn’t always mean danger. Sometimes it means there is something important or meaningful we need to do. We also need to teach the brain that there are other ways to feel safe. Staying physically close is only one of them.

There is nothing in any loving adult that will feel okay about walking away from a child in distress. But if we respond to their distress by avoiding separation, the brain will learn that the only way to feel safe is by avoiding separation. This will keep them safe and calm in the moment, but it will catastrophise separation. In the longer term, it will just make separating so much harder. 

What happens at ‘goodbye’.

As big as their anxiety might be at that point of separation or in anticipation of the separation, once you have separated, they will find their way back to calm quite quickly. The adults charged with taking care of your child will often let you know this: ‘He settled straight after you left and had a lovely day!’ 

This happens because when you leave, the brain registers that there’s just no point fighting (as in fight/flight) to make you stay. As soon as your child accepts that you aren’t coming back, their brains and bodies let go of the fight (or flight). The stress neurochemicals surging through them start to neutralise and their brains and bodies start to rest. (We won’t always recover so quickly. I’ve been there too many times.) Of course, this doesn’t mean throwing them out of the car and speeding away like you’re behind the wheel of the getaway car. What it means is being alive to the importance of loving, definite, not-too-lengthy goodbyes. The sooner you leave, the sooner their bodies and brains can rest.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that your goodbyes will get easier straight away. If their brain has learned to associate separation with threat, it will take a while to learn that they will be safe even when they aren’t with you. 

Separation anxiety: What to do.

It’s important to recognise that the behaviour that comes with separation anxiety, as big as it might be sometimes, is the symptom not the problem. To strengthen children against separation anxiety, we have to respond at the source – the felt sense of separation from you. 

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person, there will be always be anxiety unless there are two things. The first is attachment with another trusted, loving adult. The second is a felt sense of you holding on to them, even when you aren’t beside them. 

So what do we do? If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it needs more than an adult simply being present. Just because there is another adult in the room, doesn’t mean your child will experience a deep sense of safety with that adult. This doesn’t mean the adult isn’t safe. It’s about what the brain perceives, and that brain is looking for a deep, visceral, felt sense of safety. This will come from the presence of an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for them, and their joy in doing so. The joy in caretaking is important. It lets the child rest from seeking out the adult’s care because there will be a sense that the adult wants it enough for both.

This can be helped along by showing your young one that you trust the adult to love and care for the child and keep him or her safe in your absence: ‘I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.’ This doesn’t mean children will instantly feel the attachment, but the path towards that will be more well-lit.

To help them feel you holding on even when you aren’t with them, let them know you’ll be thinking of them and can’t wait to be with them again. I used to tell my daughter that every 15 seconds, my mind makes sure it knows where she is. Think of this as ‘taking over’ their worry. ‘You don’t have to worry about you or me because I’m taking care of both of us – every 15 seconds.’ This might also look like giving them something of yours to hold on to while you’re gone – a scarf, a note, your very precious ‘something’ – anything that will be felt as a little piece of you. Invite them to give you something of theirs too if they want to.

They’ll be looking to you.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they will be looking to you for signs of safety. They’ll be asking, ‘Do you see why this feels bad for me?’ ‘Do you feel it too?’ and ‘Do you think we’ll both be okay if we aren’t together?’ 

First, validation. All big feelings are there to recruit support. By speaking to the feeling and the need behind those feelings, we let those feelings rest. They’ve done their job, support is here. Validation might look like, ‘You really want to stay with me, don’t you. I wish I could stay with you too! It’s hard being away from your special people isn’t it.’ Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it. ‘I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can’t we.’ Convincing them might take time, and that’s okay. We’re lighting the way forward and it’s okay if they move in tiny, tiny steps. Small steps are what the big ones are made of.  

And finally …

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn’t always mean something is wrong. Mostly, it means they are on the edge of brave – and being away from you for a while counts as brave. Even if they don’t do it easily at first, when the opportunities for brave are in front of them, their brave will find them. Every time it does, it will grow more certain and more able to rise.

Separating can be so hard, and the hardness of separating will feel wrong on too many days – but that doesn’t mean it is wrong. They can be away from you and feel you holding on, loving them. The scaffold is helping them feel safe in the care of another trusted, loving adult. Children need an attachment village. The more we can do to help them feel safe in the care of the adults around them, the more we will grow their village and open their world a little wider.

10 Comments

Chloë

Thank you so much for this article, it is so beautifully written and so very helpful. Some great tips in here to help both myself and my daughter.

Reply
Melanie

Great read! My son and I both suffer from separation anxiety, school drop offs are very tricky! We will get there.

Reply
Todd

A highly overlooked presence in alot of children’s lives. My Son has a 50/50 shared custody agreement and I need to be more present in those moments. A list of 3 key changes I will make and I’m sure it will have a positive affect. It does bother me that the sacrifice for being the most progressive species, humans are super complicated animals. Simplify everything, strip it back layer by layer. I believe in order for Humans to keep progressing we must balance complicated with simplified, always counter, that’s what keeps everything in motion.

Reply
ELENA O

As always, Karen, your thoughts are incredibly valuable. I have to be honest that I believe my own separation anxiety is worse than my daughter’s. I’m working on it and your thoughts and ideas are so comforting.

Thank you.

Reply
Jean Tracy

I experienced the personal separation anxiety when my boys were in daycare. My kids did too just as you said. My oldest clung to me at one pre-school. It was beautiful and had all kinds of learning toys. I knew something was wrong and suspected it was missing a caring adult, again, just as you said. He did much better in a home daycare with a loving mom who had been a teacher.

Thanks for writing such an important article, Karen. I will share it on my social media sites.

Reply
Daphne H

Thank you Karen, so beautifully expressed and true to my situation even though my son is 18. He experiences huge anxiety daily and throughout the day/night. Convincing him that he is safe is a constant job. This is why we all need other significant people, not just our immediate family. Our family needs at least 3 sets of parents!

Reply
Fion

This is so beautiful and reassuring. I wish I’d read this when I was a young mother – yet I’m also glad I’ve read it now that I am a nana. Thank you.

Reply
Vanessa

Thank you for this post. It’s such great practical advice and easily digested. I really enjoyed your book and podcast with Kylie camps. Love and appreciate your work.

Reply

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Whenever the brain registers threat, it organises the body to fight the danger, flee from it, or hide from it. 

Here’s the rub. ‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually dangerous, but about what the brain perceives. It also isn’t always obvious. For a strong, powerful, magnificent, protective brain, ‘threat’ might count as anything that comes with even the teeniest potential of making a mistake, failure, humiliation, judgement, shame, separation from important adults, exclusion, unfamiliarity, unpredictability. They’re the things that can make any of us feel vulnerable.

Once the brain registers threat the body will respond. This can drive all sorts of behaviour. Some will be obvious and some won’t be. The responses can be ones that make them bigger (aggression, tantrums) or ones that make them smaller (going quiet or still, shrinking, withdrawing). All are attempts to get the body to safety. None are about misbehaviour, misintent, or disrespect. 

One of the ways bodies stay safe is by hiding, or by getting small. When children are in distress, they might look calm, but unless there is a felt sense of safety, the body will be surging with neurochemicals that make it impossible for that young brain to learn or connect. 

We all have our things that can send us there. These things are different for all of us, and often below our awareness. The responses to these ‘things’ are automatic and instinctive, and we won’t always know what has sent us there. 

We just need to be mindful that sometimes it’s when children seem like no trouble at all that they need our help the most. The signs can include a wilted body, sad or distant eyes, making the body smaller, wriggly bodies, a heavy head. 

It can also look as though they are ignoring you or being quietly defiant. They aren’t - their bodies are trying to keep them safe. A  body in flight or flight can’t hear words as well as it can when it’s calm.

What they need (what all kids need) are big signs of safety from the adult in the room - loving, warm, voices and faces that are communicating clear intent: ‘I’m here, I see you and I’ve got you. You are safe, and you can do this. I’m with you.’♥️
I’d love to invite you to an online webinar:
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As we emerge from the pandemic, stressors are heightened, and anxiety is an ever more common experience. We know from research that the important adults in the life of a child or teen have enormous capacity to help their world feel again, and to bring a felt sense of calm and safety to those young ones. This felt sense of security is essential for learning, regulation, and general well-being. 

I’m thrilled to be joining @marc.brackett and Dr Farah Schroder to explore the role of emotion regulation and the function of anxiety in our lives. Participants will learn ways to help express and regulate their own, and their children’s, emotions, even when our world may feel a little scary and stressful. We will also share practical and holistic strategies that can be most effective in fostering well-being for both ourselves and children. 

In this webinar, hosted by @dalailamacenter you will have the opportunity to learn creative, evidence-informed takeaways to help you and the children in your care build resilience and foster a sense of security and calmness. Join us for this 1 ½ hour session, including a dynamic Q&A period.
 
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The link to register is in my story.♥️
So much of what our kids and teens are going through isn’t normal - online school, extended separation from their loved people, lockdowns, masks. Even if what they are going through isn’t ‘normal’, their response will be completely understandable. Not all children will respond the same way if course, but whatever they feel will be understandable, relatable, and ‘normal’. 

Whether they feel anxious, confused, frustrated, angry, or nothing at all, it’s important that their response is normalised. Research has found that children are more likely to struggle with traumatic events if they believe their response isn’t normal. This is because they tend to be more likely to interpret their response as a sign of breakage. 

Try, ‘What’s happening is scary. There’s no ‘right’ way to feel and different people will feel different things. It’s okay to feel whatever you feel.’

Any message you can give them that you can handle all their feelings and all their words will help them feel safer, and their world feel steadier.♥️
We need to change the way we think about discipline. It’s true that traditional ‘discipline’ (separation, shame, consequences/punishment that don’t make sense) might bring compliant children, but what happens when the fear of punishment or separation isn’t there? Or when they learn that the best way to avoid punishment is to keep you out of the loop?

Our greatest parenting ‘tool’ is our use of self - our wisdom, modelling, conversations, but for any of this to have influence we need access to their ‘thinking’ brain - the prefrontal cortex - the part that can learn, think through consequences, plan, make deliberate decisions. During stress this part switches off. It is this way for all of us. None of us are up for lectures or learning (or adorable behaviour) when we’re stressed.

The greatest stress for young brains is a felt sense of separation from their important people. It’s why time-outs, shame, calm down corners/chairs/spaces which insist on separation just don’t work. They create compliance, but a compliant child doesn’t mean a calm child. As long as a child doesn’t feel calm and safe, we have no access to the part of the brain that can learn and be influenced by us.

Behind all behaviour is a need - power,  influence, independence, attention (connection), to belong, sleep - to name a few). The need will be valid. Children are still figuring out the world (aren’t we all) and their way of meeting a need won’t always make sense. Sometimes it will make us furious. (And sometimes because of that we’ll also lose our thinking brains and say or do things that aren’t great.)

So what do we do when they get it wrong? The same thing we hope our people will do when we get things wrong. First, we recognise that the behaviour is not a sign of a bad child or a bad parent, but their best attempt to meet a need with limited available resources. Then we collect them - we calm ourselves so we can bring calm to them. Breathe, be with. Then we connect through validation. Finally, when their bodies are calm and their thinking brain is back, talk about what’s happened, what they can do differently next time, and how they can put things right. Collect, connect, redirect.
Our nervous systems are talking to each other every minute of every day. We will catch what our children are feeling and they will catch ours. We feel their distress, and this can feed their distress. Our capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

Children create their distress in us as a way to recruit support to help them carry the emotional load. It’s how it’s meant to be. Whatever you are feeling is likely to be a reflection what your children are feeling. If you are frustrated, angry, helpless, scared, it’s likely that they are feeling that way too. Every response in you and in them is relevant. 

You don’t need to fix their feelings. Let their feelings come, so they can go. The healing is in the happening. 

In that moment of big feelings it’s more about who you are than what you do. Feel what they feel with a strong, steady heart. They will feel you there with them. They will feel it in you that you get them, that you can handle whatever they are feeling, and that you are there. This will help calm them more than anything. We feel safest when we are ‘with’. Feel the feeling, breathe, and be with - and you don’t need to do more than that. 
There will be a time for teaching, learning, redirecting, but the middle of a storm is not that time.♥️

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