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.

6 Comments

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Follow Hey Sigmund on Instagram

For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting

Pin It on Pinterest