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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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For our children, we start building the foundations for adolescence in their earliest years - the relationship we’ll have with them, who they are going to be, how they are going to be. One of the things we’ll want to build is their capacity to know their own minds and be brave enough to use it. This isn’t easy, even for adults, so the more practice we give them, the more they’ll be able to access their strong, brave, beautiful minds when they need to - when we aren’t there.

This means letting them have a say when we can, asking their opinions, and letting them disagree.

When kids and teens argue, they’re communicating. We need to listen, but the need won’t always be obvious. When littles argue because it’s spaghetti for dinner and ‘I hate spaghetti so much’ (even though last week and the 5 years before last week, spaghetti was their favourite), they might be expressing a need for sleep, power and influence, or independence. All are valid. When your teen argues because they want to do something you’ve said no to, the need might be to preserve their felt sense of inclusion with their tribe, or independence from you. Again, all valid. 

Of course, a valid need doesn’t mean it will always be met. Sometimes our needs might need to take priority to theirs, such as our need to keep them safe, or for them to learn that they can still be okay if everything doesn’t go their way, or that sometimes people will have conflicting needs that need to take priority. What’s important is letting them know we hear them and we get it.

It’s going to take time for kids to learn how to argue and express themselves respectfully. In the meantime, the words might be clumsy, loud, angry. This is when we need to hold on to ourselves, meet them where they are, let them know we hear them, and step into our leadership presence. We might give them what they need because it makes sense and because there isn’t enough reason not to. Sometimes, after giving them space to be heard we’ll need to stand our ground. Other times we might solve the problem collaboratively: This is what you want. This is what I want. Let’s talk about how we can we both get what we need.♥️
Anxiety will always tilt our focus to the risks, often at the expense of the very real rewards. It does this to keep us safe. We’re more likely to run into trouble if we miss the potential risks than if we miss the potential gains. 

This means that anxiety will swell just as much in reaction to a real life-threat, as it will to the things that might cause heartache (feels awful, but not life-threatening), but which will more likely come with great rewards. Wholehearted living means actively shifting our awareness to what we have to gain by taking a safe risk. 

Sometimes staying safe will be the exactly right thing to do, but sometimes we need to fight for that important or meaningful thing by hushing the noise of anxiety and moving bravely forward. 

When children or teens are on the edge of brave, but anxiety is pushing them back, ask, ‘But what would it be like if you could?’ ♥️

#parenting #parent #mindfulparenting #childanxiety #positiveparenting #heywarrior #heyawesome
Except I don’t do hungry me or tired me or intolerant me, as, you know … intolerably. Most of the time. Sometimes.
Growth doesn’t always announce itself in ways that feel safe or invited. Often, it can leave us exhausted and confused and with dirt in our pores from the fury of the battle. It is this way for all of us, our children too. 

The truth of it all is that we are all born with a profound and immense capacity to rise through challenges, changes and heartache. There is something else we are born with too, and it is the capacity to add softness, strength, and safety for each other when the movement towards growth feels too big. Not always by finding the answer, but by being it - just by being - safe, warm, vulnerable, real. As it turns out, sometimes, this is the richest source of growth for all of us.
When the world feel sunsettled, the ripple can reach the hearts, minds and spirits of kids and teens whether or not they are directly affected. As the important adult in the life of any child or teen, you have a profound capacity to give them what they need to steady their world again.

When their fears are really big, such as the death of a parent, being alone in the world, being separated from people they love, children might put this into something else. 

This can also happen because they can’t always articulate the fear. Emotional ‘experiences’ don’t lay in the brain as words, they lay down as images and sensory experiences. This is why smells and sounds can trigger anxiety, even if they aren’t connected to a scary experience. The ‘experiences’ also don’t need to be theirs. Hearing ‘about’ is enough.

The content of the fear might seem irrational but the feeling will be valid. Think of it as the feeling being the part that needs you. Their anxiety, sadness, anger (which happens to hold down other more vulnerable emotions) needs to be seen, held, contained and soothed, so they can feel safe again - and you have so much power to make that happen. 

‘I can see how worried you are. There are some big things happening in the world at the moment, but my darling, you are safe. I promise. You are so safe.’ 

If they have been through something big, the truth is that they have been through something frightening AND they are safe, ‘We’re going through some big things and it can be confusing and scary. We’ll get through this. It’s okay to feel scared or sad or angry. Whatever you feel is okay, and I’m here and I love you and we are safe. We can get through anything together.’

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