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.

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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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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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