Separation Anxiety in Children: Ideas and Advice from Experts

separation anxiety in children

Q: I expected my son to have separation anxiety when he was a toddler, but now, when I drop him off at grade school, he throws a fit like he’s a two-year-old.

At the classroom door, he clings to me, sobs and refuses to engage with his teacher. I have to physically pull him off me and, almost, run away, when I drop him off while the teacher gives him a big bear hug. How can I help my son combat his separation anxiety? Most mornings these days, by the time I get back to my car, I’m frazzled and sobbing.

Anxiety in children doesn’t just happen at the doors of a preschool classroom

Separation anxiety, the fear of being away from mom, dad or another caregiver, can pop up unexpectedly and at various points throughout a child’s development.

Those morning transitions can be messy, ugly and sad, but parents also should take heart, said Jennifer Miller, an expert in social and emotional learning and author of Confident Parents, Confident Kids. It’s a normal part of a child’s development.

“It’s representing a new level of social awareness,” Miller said. “As social awareness increases, so too does social anxiety.” 

And while the morning transition from home to school is a common time for separation anxiety to appear, children who worry about being away from you may demonstrate it at other times as well.

They might refuse to go to playdates and camps, for example, or have trouble falling asleep, said Dr. Michelle Curtin, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health, in an article on the topic.

What’s critical for parents to remember is this: We need to help them face their fears. “If parents allow their kids to avoid everything that makes them anxious, they may be left with a very limited world—and they won’t learn how to move past their anxieties,” Curtin said in the article.

If your child is experiencing a bout of separation anxiety, here’s what Miller recommends you do to combat it.

Feel good about the provider

Your child won’t be excited about their school or camp if they sense that you’re not confident that it’s the best place for them either. So, do your due diligence. “Call references,” Miller said. “Spend time with the care provider. Talk to them with the child in the environment … Really do whatever you need to do to get to a place of trust with that care provider, so that when you leave them, you have a sense of confidence that they’re going to be safe.”

Give them a reminder of you

It might be a tiny piece of a blanket or T-shirt that you’ve slept with and smells like you. Whatever it is, it should be a small, tactile memento of you. “Something that she can stick her hand in her pocket to feel or put up against her face when she’s feeling sad,” Miller said.

Get them excited about the day

Take the focus off drop-off and on the day ahead, Miller said. Talk about all the good things that will happen, such as the chance to play with a new friend or take part in an activity they’ve talked about. “Excitedly anticipate the goodness of the day,” Miller said.

Explain exactly when pickup is

Don’t say that you’ll be there at the end of the day or even at noon or 3 p.m. Instead, said Miller, talk to them about pickup time in terms of what activities they’ll be doing immediately before you see them again. So, said Miller, if you’ll see them after lunch, tell them, “‘OK, you’ll eat lunch and then I’ll be there.’”

Be confident in your goodbye

Kids can sense your own anxiety and worry, so don’t let them see it when you drop them off.

“Give her a confident hug, put her in the arms of the caregiver, say bye-bye and get out,” Miller said. “And then go get yourself a cup of coffee and cry it out. You want to show her that you trust the care provider. You can reassure her that she is being such a big girl. But the more you dote, the more she might feel your anxiousness about it.”

Check in with the teacher

After drop-off, find out from the teacher how soon your child settled down after you left and how the rest of their day went. Children often pull themselves together very quickly after mom or dad leaves. And, eventually, those morning transitions will become easier.

“Positively anticipate the day and do all your preparations,” Miller said. “It will extinguish after a while.”

Build excitement

“Ask the teacher or caregiver if your child can bring a show-and-tell item, so they anticipate and really get excited about something they are going to show the rest of the class. You want them to hotly anticipate the day, not just focus on missing you.”

Jennifer Miller, Expert in social and emotional learning and author of “Confident Parents, Confident Kids”

Make it familiar

“On those nights when kids just can’t seem to finish a project, it’s time to set some boundaries. If your kid is working until all hours of the night, you might have to get in there and set some rules. Give them a half hour warning. Say, ‘We’re going to power down. If your work isn’t perfect, that’s OK. If you want me to let your teacher know I told you that you have to go to sleep, we can write an email together.’ If it’s a younger child, you can write it for them. You do have to be patient because kids who are perfectionists are trying to deal with uncertainty and trying to have some sense of control. It’s easier to hide behind perfection than to admit weakness.”

Dr. Gail Saltz, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital, via U.S. News and World Report

Help them confront their fear

“Let your child know that it is OK to make mistakes. Do not expect perfection from your child. Mistakes are for learning and they are good. As a whole, our culture expects far too much perfection from children.  Don’t get caught up in that. Talk to your child about how mistakes are part of the learning process.”

Andrew R. Eisen, Linda B. Engler and Joshua Sparrow: Helping Your Child Overcome Separation Anxiety and School Refusal